Using GIS to Investigate Crime and Provide Evidence in Court

November 19, 2014

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Gregory Elmes, professor of geography at West Virginia University, co-edited Forensic GIS: The Role of Geospatial Technologies for Investigating Crime and Providing Evidence, a book of case studies written for researchers, practitioners and students (press release). He spoke with Directions Magazineabout the history and current use of location technology in preventing and fighting crime and convicting offenders.

Directions Magazine(DM): The early use of mapping, and later GIS, in crime analysis involved putting dots on the map. What factors (from police, from citizens, from technology) pushed analysis forward? Was there a specific time period when that occurred or wasitan evolution rather than a revolution?

Gregory Elmes (GE): As demonstrated in the book, the Web has contributed both to the widespread diffusion of simple dot mapping and to an increasing familiarity with sophisticated and interactive analyses.  I argue for a steady gradual development of technology, analysis and display rather than revolutions; pushed by such innovations as the acceptance of COMSTAT-style policing, gradual education and understanding of the value of point data spatial statistics, surfaces/visualization, and above all,the recognition of geography as a rich source of explanation, beyond simple location. Citizens’spatial search requirements have become more complex,thus driving innovation on behalf of law enforcement agencies.

DM: GIS is used by police to map crimes and now it’salso beingusedto map police misconduct. Is there pushback from law enforcement when GIS and related technologies are used for accountability?

GE: Technology is neutral and it’s only natural that it will be used for different perspectives by different groups of users. I’m not in a position to comment on push-back on the basis of this book, but police recognize the value of two-way information on criminal and enforcement activities.

DM: Registration and mapping of sex offenders is covered frequently on the news. Does the public use those maps? How have they evolved from just “dots on a map”?

GE: A fraught area exists on the boundaries between the desire for human rights and justice versus the need for community safety and the fear of the unknown.  Several authors in this book argue for the scientific study of the public’s use of information, andespecially in hot-button topics such as sex offenders and police use of force. According to the media, NIMBY (“not in my backyard”) reigns,along with a “gated community” and isolation psychology. The maps tend to reinforce this perception of ever-decreasing residential opportunity for convicted sex offenders,even long after they have completed their sentences. We need greater studies of the public and the offenders’understanding of the resulting geography.

DM: Where is GIS use headed? What can we expect to see in the coming years?

GE: I’m not a crystal ball gazer and it’s too easy to make hysterical, dystopian prognostications about the role of geospatial technologies in fighting crime. The limits of use of geospatial technology for investigating crime and providing evidence will inevitably be controlled by the Supreme Court in the last instance.  But as in IT in general, bigdata,ubiquitous sensing and computing,volunteered geographical information and crowdsourcing are bound to make themselves ever more present in criminal justice.  Visualization will lead the way, allowing for greater appreciation of the advantages of advanced spatial analysis. Space and time relationships will push the investigation, exposure and prosecution of white-collar crime and other criminal activities.  Geographic information will be used in all its varieties across the board.


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