Fighting Crime with Technology

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Got Crime? There’s an App for That

Police technology

Real police work is nothing like a television cop show. But the Santa Cruz Police Department (SCPD) has felt a bit like Hollywood this year, with camera crews from México, Brazil, Japan, France, Croatia, Canada, England, and Denmark beating down its doors, jostling with police officials from throughout the United States.

The SCPD became the first in the United States to launch a mobile phone app for I-Phone and Droids, linking cell phone users directly to police services. Adding to the excitement, the SCPD launched a first-in-the-nation Predictive Policing Program this year, triggering a flood of media attention, along with inquiries from more than 200 law enforcement agencies.

So far, more than 20,000 residents have downloaded the app, allowing them to listen in on police dispatchers, text a crime tip, view neighborhood crime maps, and receive emergency alerts—all from their mobile phones.

Neighborhood organizer Deborah Elston uses the app every day to check neighborhood crime maps, report non-emergency crimes, and listen to dispatchers when she hears sirens nearby. “It used to take a time-consuming trip to the Police Department to get neighborhood crime data,” she said. “If it was available at all.”

“These tools are just amazing, they’re absolutely the best, easiest way to find out what is going on in your neighborhood,” Elston said. “It’s empowering for people in the community, and it reminds us that we all have a part to play. If you don’t report break-ins in your neighborhood, they won’t show up on the crime maps, and they won’t get resolved.”

The apps’ nine components also include links to the SCPD blog, Facebook page, Twitter feed, news page, videos, and photos. The Nixle crime-alert system notifies subscribers of emergency events, such as bomb scares, Amber alerts, and traffic emergencies.

SCPD Crime Analyst Zach Friend, who conceived and helped design the apps, says the blog gets the most traffic of any of the services, with more than 1,000 daily visits.

The Predictive Policing software was provided to the City for free, because the SCPD worked with the developers to design and test the system. Predictive Policing is a data-crunching tool that uses crime report information to identify crime hotspots and timeslots with great precision, identifying problem areas as small as 500 feet square. The system works best at predicting property crimes like burglary, theft, and vandalism.

For example, burglaries in the City of Santa Cruz have dropped 19 percent since Predictive Policing was launched, without a corresponding increase in staff.

While Predictive Policing isn’t linked to the mobile apps, its predictions become more accurate as citizens use their mobile phones to file more crime reports.

“This technology can’t replace an officer on the street, or analysts, or the human component of law enforcement,” said Santa Cruz Police Chief Kevin Vogel. “But it does help us be more efficient. It helps guide our decision making, and our allocation of resources.”