• Center for Problem oriented policing

Step 2: Be the local crime expert

How often have you been asked the following sorts of questions in your work?
  • What locations are hot for auto theft right now?
  • Which convenience stores are repeatedly robbed and why?
  • What are burglars taking from shops and where do they fence the goods?
  • Is there less crime in the better-lit streets?
  • Which apartment complexes harbor drug markets?
Some of these you might not have been able to answer at all - others only after a special analysis. But suppose you had the answers to them and many more at your fingertips? Suppose you were the expert on crime in your force area? In fact, nobody else can fill that role:
  • Individual officers are too busy answering calls.
  • Detectives are focused on specific cases.
  • Sergeants are supervising their officers.
  • Lieutenants are overseeing patrol responses for large geographic areas.
  • The chief, his or her assistants and captains are busy with administrative issues.
In short, nobody can see the whole crime picture. But if you became the local crime expert it would help make your department more informed, efficient, and capable of using its resources to reduce crime. It would provide more opportunity to warn citizens, to detect offenders, and to initiate prevention efforts. In short, you could help a lot of people by gathering the right information.To become the local crime expert, sit in regularly with dispatchers and talk to officers about what they are seeing. Remember the late shift might not see officers on the early shift, and those on one side of town might not see officers on the other. They often talk about exceptions, not the rules, about what made them angry, not about the routine. Yet the routine is the bread and butter of crime analysis.Take ride-alongs as often as time permits. Not only will you get to know more of the officers in your department, but you will also get a better feel for their work and the problems they face on the street. Matt White, crime analyst with the Jacksonville, Florida Sheriff's Office, recommends taking along a laptop loaded with Geographic Information System (GIS) data. You can then compare information about the area with the officers' perceptions.Crime scenes receive a good deal of attention in serious crimes, but not usually in ordinary crimes. You can learn a lot by visiting them, especially when trying to understand a particular crime problem. Comparing incident reports with your own observations could reveal that important details about the setting and the circumstances of incidents might not have been recorded - perhaps because the report form did not specifically request them. Armed with this knowledge, you can suggest changes to the forms to capture information that is helpful both for detecting offenders and for thinking about how to prevent these crimes in the future.Try to keep abreast of new trends in crime. Read through a batch of crime reports each week to see if there is anything new. Try also to pay attention to failed crime attempts (see box). Some offenders have a trial-and-error process as they look for new ways to get something for nothing. Those trying to cheat ticket vending machines or ATMs may have difficulty in finding a method that works. But when they do, the word will spread. If you know their method, you might be able to warn officers and others.Very often a local crime problem is also found elsewhere. Your force may experience a rash of thefts from building sites when this has never been a problem before. But you can be sure that somewhere else has suffered this problem. That's why it is important to be alert to changes in crime targets and modus operandi. The Internet is a good source of information about what crime others are seeing. You should also ask your analyst colleagues in nearby forces. They may be experiencing exactly the same problem, with perhaps the same group of offenders involved.Do not limit yourself to the police because many other people know a lot about particular crime problems:
  • City code inspectors can see blight developing before this is apparent to others.
  • Bar owners know about underage drinking, poor serving practices and sloppy management (in other bars, of course!).
  • Principals know all too well about bullying and vandalism on school premises.
  • Small business owners are alert to problems involving their premises. For example, a pharmacist knows what is being stolen from his shop or whether intoxicated people are hanging out nearby.
  • Emergency room personnel see many injuries from crime that they record but might not report to the police.
  • Women's refuges or rape crisis centers know far more about patterns of domestic violence than most police officers.
  • Private security guards are often the first to know about a particular incident. But they also have information that can contribute to your general understanding of local crime patterns.
Offenders themselves are surprising sources of information. Although they might not admit doing anything themselves, they are often willing to talk about "how it is usually done." Many offenders are actually quite talkative about the craft of offending, and will tell you exactly how they pick targets, fence valuables, what offenders are looking for these days, and the like. Asking your police colleagues to obtain this information from offenders can sometimes be very useful.Last, victims can tell you a good deal about the crime. For offenses such as burglary, they may not be able to give a precise time of offense, but they can still tell you where an offender broke in, what is missing, what room or floor was left alone, etc.

How to become expert on crime in your area:

  • Get away from your computer!
  • Talk to officers about what they are seeing.
  • Go on ride-alongs and sit with dispatchers.
  • Visit crime scenes and examine crime reports.
  • Check failed attempts to learn exactly what happened.
  • Talk to city officials about specific crime problems.
  • Exchange information with businesses and private security.
  • Ask analysts in nearby cities about changes in crime targets and methods.
  • Ask officers to question offenders about their methods.
  • Get information from victims about exactly when, where, and how.
  • Help to improve crime incident forms and data capture.

Learning from Unsuccessful Attempts

The Chula Vista, California Police Department was aware that the city's building boom could worsen the residential burglary problem. The new houses were intended for affluent couples who would be out during the day when burglaries were most likely to happen. The police, therefore, decided to examine the effectiveness of existing security precautions to see if any of these could be built into new homes or suggested to homeowners. Cathy Burciaga, one of the department's crime analysts, compared completed burglaries with unsuccessful attempts for an 18-month sample of 569 homes in the city. This indicated that deadbolts should be installed on both the side and front doors of new houses. Interviews conducted with 250 victims and 50 burglars revealed that not one burglar had tried to enter a house by breaking a double-glazed window. This led to the recommendation that all windows in new housing be double-glazed and meet strict forced-entry standards.
Completed BurglariesUnsuccessful AttemptsEffective?*
Dusk to dawn light28%29%No
Indoor light on26%29%No
Indoor timer light9%11%No
Deadbolt on front door28%25%No
Deadbolt front & side doors15%29%Yes
Outdoor motion detector23%36%Yes
Radio/TV left on9%18%Yes
Alarm company sign19%36%Yes
*"Yes" means present in a larger proportion of unsuccessful attempts than completed burglaries.