March 4, 2010

Police fighting crime in city by the numbers

By DAVID HENCH Staff Writer


click image to enlarge

John Patriquin/Staff Photographer; Wed., Oct..21,2009. Portland police chief James Craig heads a department meeting using CompStat, a crime fighting approach that analyzes crime trends and targets resources to crimes that are increasing.

Staff Writer

The Portland Police Department is counting on statistics to help officers battle crime.

A program called CompStat is being used to track crime trends across the city and help commanders decide how best to assign patrol units and detectives.

The department also will use it to set goals for crime reduction and hold officers and supervisors accountable for crime in their areas.

''It brings about a sense of urgency in what we're in this business for, which is fighting and bringing about an end to crime,'' said Police Chief James Craig.

At his weekly CompStat meeting last week, Craig questioned sergeants and captains about the number of crimes in the city.

Around the table sat the leaders of patrol, investigation and anti-drug operations, as well as the command staff and the department's new crime analyst, Lisa Boisvert.

The chief scanned a 13-page report covering serious crimes in the past week.

The report includes beat maps with colored dots representing different types of crime. A Munjoy Hill map shows a cluster of residential and car burglaries, and in the West End, home burglaries and thefts stand out.

The visuals help supervisors and patrol officers understand what is happening around the community and correlate different types of crimes that might be related, such as drug activity and robberies.

What Craig focuses on, though, is an analysis comparing the numbers of each type of crime in the past month with the numbers from the previous month.

The numbers look good. Violent crime -- homicide, rape, robbery and aggravated assault -- is down 47 percent, with 16 incidents in the past four weeks compared to 30 the month before. Property crime -- burglary, theft, car theft and arson -- is down 5 percent in the same period, from 243 incidents to 231.

''Our numbers are extremely strong as we go into the last period of the quarter,'' Craig told the group, though year-to-date numbers show a slight increase in robbery and burglary, with drops in other categories.

The numbers help focus patrol efforts in areas where crime has been trending upward.

Capt. Vern Malloch, head of patrol, describes a recent rash of criminal mischief. Someone with a pellet gun has damaged windows in at least 18 cars. Although not a major crime, it can be a major headache for car owners, and replacement costs could total $9,000 or more.

Malloch cites an analysis by Boisvert that shows about 55 percent of the incidents were on Friday and 45 percent on Saturday, in both cases starting around 9 p.m. Most were on Munjoy Hill and in the Old Port, though a few were in the Riverton and North Deering areas as well.

Officers can focus attention on those areas to reduce opportunity for more vandalism while a detective works with other officers to identify and charge a suspect.

Detective Sgt. Dean Goodale explains that burglaries in North Deering -- a sore spot for weeks -- have stopped. A primary suspect was arrested by the senior lead officer for that area and charged with a burglary in Falmouth.

The statistical breakdown also includes arrests. Craig notes that if crimes are up and arrests are down, the police need to be more productive.

Reducing crime doesn't always require an arrest, though.

''Crime prevention can be just as big a part as anything else,'' Malloch said after the meeting. That can involve educating a business about how to stop theft or saturating an area hard-hit by burglaries with officers to discourage new crimes.

During the meeting, Craig suggested having the Police Explorers leaflet Munjoy Hill alerting residents to the burglaries and the need to lock their doors. Many of the burglaries were through unlocked doors or windows and targeted laptop computers and other items that could be grabbed quickly.

''A lot of times what we do with these crimes is go into an educational campaign,'' Craig said.

Although the meeting has a fair amount of cheerful banter, Craig said it can get uncomfortable if supervisors don't have a good handle on what's happening in their areas.

CompStat encourages accountability, he said. If officers are seeing an uptick in crime in their areas, they need to be finding out why and developing strategies to solve the problem, Craig said.

He told the story of how Los Angeles Chief William Bratton questioned him about a nightclub shooting in his territory. When he didn't have the right answers, he found himself transferred to another area of the city the next day.

It was a good experience, Craig said, because it helped him understand the importance of accountability in police work.

Craig was introduced to the CompStat system by Bratton, who had brought it to Los Angeles from New York City.

Craig said he believes his is the only department using it in Maine, and one of the few in New England.

The technique is catching on with other departments, though.

The Cumberland County Sheriff's Office this week rolls out its own regular statistical analysis. The assessment will promote accountability and help deploy patrol units, though in a rural patrol with limited staffing it can be harder to give an area special attention for any prolonged period.

It will, however, provide a precise accounting of which county patrol areas are facing the biggest crime problems at a given time.

Sometimes the statistics in a small city like Portland are too small to be telling. The number of forcible rapes jumped 33 percent in the past month -- from three to four. None involved an attacker unknown to the victim.

However, the small number gives police the ability to focus narrowly on a neighborhood or even a particular person. The number also provides a baseline to help the department set goals, targets that require constant improvement, Craig said.

''If we have 5 percent reduction (in crime) this year, to get 5 percent next year we'll have to be better,'' he said.

At one point he jokes that the goal for next year will be a reduction in crime of 50 percent.

The jest does raise one of the potential downsides to heavy reliance on statistics, something Craig himself noted when he rolled out the program in August. Some departments have manipulated numbers to reach targets or meet public expectations.

Craig said he has confidence in the integrity of his officers, and that manipulation won't happen here.

He envisions changes in Portland's CompStat in the future that he believes will make it more effective. Within the next few months, he hopes to have a video screen in the meeting room so the command staff can see where crimes have occurred over time.

Eventually, he plans what he calls a ''Star Wars'' approach. As crimes are reported, dots will flash up on an officer's cruiser laptop.

Craig said analyzing the numbers gets everyone on the force to pay attention to the big picture -- crime, and the fear of crime, in the city.

''You get what you ask for. If I'm not asking about crime, what am I going to get? It shows it doesn't matter,'' Craig said.

''That doesn't mean we're going to always solve a crime, but we're paying attention,'' he said. ''Reducing the fear of crime is critically important.''

Staff Writer David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at:

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