Collaboration lets officers take location-based approach
Every Tuesday morning, before the Public Safety Building is open for business, 20-some law enforcement officers and city personnel gather in the police chief’s conference room to look at maps.
They come from agencies such as the FBI; Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; Spokane Police Department; Spokane County Sheriff’s Office; Department of Corrections; and the city’s legal department.
They talk about suspects: their names, ages, addresses, known associates and weapons history. They talk about residences: who lives there, what calls have been made to that house and what the neighbors are saying.
“If he gets arrested, we want to coordinate with ATF,” police Chief Frank Straub noted during a meeting a few weeks ago about a man suspected of unlawfully carrying a weapon. Collaborating with ATF means the suspect could face additional, federal charges or be sentenced to more time.
The meeting focuses specifically on property crimes that took place in the past week: vehicle thefts, vehicle prowling and residential and commercial burglaries. The maps illuminate where groups of those crimes took place.
Then the officers make a plan.
“It may be helpful to push this information to the neighborhood associations,” Straub said of suspects’ mug shots. He coordinates with public information officers at the meeting to make a plan for what kind of information they will make public. A public version of the crime report is published on the Police Department’s website after each meeting.
The meeting is part of a new process implemented within the department this year called CompStat, short for Computer Statistics. First developed by the New York Police Department, the meetings allow the various departments to come together to use current crime statistics and data analysis to identify hot spots for various crimes, then allocate resources as needed. Instead of chasing individual suspects all over town, the focus shifts to problem areas where groups of criminals tend to do business.
“I think to some degree in the past, the Police Department was a spectator to the crime issues,” Straub said. “Now, as the police chief, I believe I own the crime problem in this city.”
Last year, overall crime in the city rose 21 percent, according to FBI data. Property crime went up 23 percent. Police spokeswoman Monique Cotton said the CompStat data weeds out calls that after an investigation turn out to be nothing. The CompStat data shows this year’s crime numbers are still going up, but at a slower rate of 4 percent.
“It’s going in the right direction,” Straub said.
Most of last year’s increase was from property crime.
Vehicle thefts are still up 28 percent from last year, although earlier this year, they were up 44 percent.
Straub said he established CompStat when he was the public safety commissioner in White Plains, N.Y. In a seven-year span, he said, crime dropped 40 percent.
“CompStat allows me to focus the agency’s attention on our central business mission: reducing crime and doing it in a way that’s collaborative with the community, that’s respectful of the community,” Straub said. “But our core mission is crime reduction. And I think somewhere along the line, we got lost from that.”
Cmdr. Joe Walker said the new management technique has had a positive trickle-down effect on patrol officers, who now feel like they have a plan when they hit the streets every day.
“The morale is so much better than what it has been just recently,” Walker said. “I think everybody feels like they can actually be police officers again.”
Previously, he said, patrols would receive emails or updates from supervisors at the beginning of each shift on crimes that happened in the last day, but didn’t map out patterns or collaborate with other agencies to point out problem people or areas. They still get those emails and have the pre-shift meetings, but now they have more-updated information and a way to report back what they see on the streets every day.
Straub said an eventual goal will be to move patrols to a precinct format, where officers are responsible for specific areas and can get to know the neighborhoods and their people better.
“We have an obligation to be held accountable at the local level for crime reduction,” the chief said.