PORTLAND — In recent years, the Police Department, like many others, has turned to computer-driven data analysis to guide its work.
Using a handful of techniques to isolate and map crime by day, time, type, or area, the department has been able to focus on hot-spots and beef up patrols to deter crime in at-risk areas.
The city’s crime rate dropped about 10 percent over two years, Chief Michael Sauschuck said earlier this year.
Lisa Konopka, the department’s crime analyst, says most crime is opportunistic.
“The presence of an officer in the right place and the right time is a deterrence from the crime ever occurring, which is much better than a crime occurring and us finding and arresting (a suspect),” Konopka said.
That’s because it is difficult to return stolen property or the victim’s sense of safety, she said, and because once a person enters the criminal justice system, recidivism rates are high.
But pulling the data necessary to pinpoint the most important trends with the department’s existing software was an exasperating process. There was no simple or comprehensive search function, and mapping had to be done mostly by hand.
And it was slow – so slow that Konopka bought a Rubik’s Cube to play with as her computer chugged along, sifting through databases to answer her queries.
So Konopka decided to build her own software.
“I had to do the best I could with what I had,” she said. “I didn’t feel like what I had was good enough for my community, or my officers.”
Last September, Konopka enlisted the help of a friend, Portland software developer Mike Santerre, to help her turn her ideas to reality. The pair has worked since then to produce a program called Predictive Policing that can search by type of crime or call for service, by time of day and day of the week, by neighborhood, or by work shift.
Now in a beta-testing phase, the program exports and maps information via Google Earth, and can track the amount of money that is spent on each service call in terms of officer salary.
“Now I can do things that are less data pulling … and get back to the basics of crime analysis,” Konopka said.
Konopka, a former military intelligence officer, is clearly thrilled with the new program.
Three computer monitors share her desk so that she can run numbers, upload new data, and perform the rest of her job at once. The Rubic’s Cube now gathers dust on a small table.
“I think it’s kind of rare that someone could develop software with (a programmer) that closely,” Santerre said. “I think it’s exciting because they can have software that works the way they want it to work.”
Other department members are excited about the program, too, perhaps none more so than Jo Freedman, the department’s mental health coordinator.
“So awesome,” Freedman said as Konopka summarized its uses. “So awesome.”
As far as Konopka and Freedman know, their program makes Portland the only department in the country that can search and pull mental health calls along with crimes. Officially, mental health calls account for 4 percent of the department’s total, but Freedman believes that the true number is much higher, and that many mental health calls are incorrectly categorized as crimes.
Freedman responds to calls with officers, offering support and often taking the reins when it becomes clear that a situation is not criminal. She also makes follow-up calls and visits to make sure that people who need help get it.
“Sometimes arrest is most appropriate, but that doesn’t mean that treatment isn’t needed. Sometimes avoiding arrest is the most appropriate,” Freedman said.
For Freedman, the Predictive Policing program means she can track growing mental health crises across the community the same way a patrol officer might track burglaries or assaults. And that makes it easier for her to follow up, or catch a person in the early stages of a psychological downward spiral before they hit bottom.
Before Konopka and Santerre developed the program, Freedman said, it took an intern an entire semester of 20-hour weeks to slog through data and determine the most important times to have several mental health providers on duty.
“With this program, we could have the information by next week,” Freedman said. “When it comes from a research mindset and a statistical mindset, we’re able to access information that we know is there and weren’t able to before,” she said.
Konopka said she hopes to have Predictive Policing accessible by every officer in the department within a year, so that they can keep track of crime trends in their patrol areas themselves.
Portland Police Department crime analyst Lisa Konopka wasn’t satisfied with the crime-tracking software available, so she set about to make her own, with the help of a local software developer and friend, Mike Santerre.