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Mapping crime

Print edition : Feb 16, 2002 T+T-

Police forces in various cities of the United States have successfully adopted crime mapping as a new tool in crime busting.

IT is our experience that a sensational crime normally provokes law-abiding citizens to scream about soaring crime rates and police incompetence. Mega-cities such as New York, London, Mumbai and Delhi have witnessed such frenzy from time to time. The media jump into the fray for a while to lambast the police for their declining professionalism before quietly proceeding to a more juicy story that sells better. The political executive reacts only to point out how the situation was worse under earlier governments. Poor public memory thereafter helps it to get away to a more hospitable clime. (It is a matter for extreme concern that, unlike in many other countries, crime and a strategy to beat it is seldom discussed in India on the eve of elections, as it hardly wins or loses votes for the contending parties.) The average policeman ducks for a few weeks to escape from the barrage of criticism and then goes on to attend to his chores as mechanically as before. In all this cacophony, one hardly ever hears a sane voice that will tell us how to respond squarely to the brutality of modern crime and how to reduce its frequency. Against this backdrop, whenever we come across a little application of mind and innovation to the task of reducing the frequency of crime, we see some hope that we have not totally lost the battle.

A three-day conference on 'crime mapping' held recently at the picturesque south Brazilian town of Belo Horizonte (Beautiful Horizon) - the third largest in the country after Sao Paulo and Rio with a population of nearly three million - offered insights into a new tool that is available for analysing crime and drawing up new field strategies. Sponsored jointly by the Vera Institute of Justice, New York, and the Centre for Studies in Criminology and Public Safety (CRISP) of the Federal University of Minas Gerais (the State of which Belo is the capital), the meet provided a forum for practitioners and academics to relate how crime mapping has helped to hone fieldwork in the area of crime prevention and community policing.

It is often forgotten that the fight against crime is not the obligation solely of the police investigator. Very few people concede that the problem demands collaboration among the police officer, the politician and the community on the one hand and experts from a variety of disciplines such as medicine, DNA technology, psychology, sociology, engineering, architecture and geography on the other. It is in this context that crime mapping sets up a convergence point for the geographer and the crime strategist.

What crime mapping attempts to do is to bring on record with visual effect all the crime that has been reported to the police in a particular geographical area, be it the whole country or a small locality such as an inconsequential street in an urban or rural segment. The objective is to highlight crime-prone areas ("hotspots") that call for extra attention and possibly deployment of more personnel. Spencer Chainey, a head consultant at a software firm that has many offices in India, who made a highly instructive presentation at Belo, would regard crime mapping as an extremely useful tool "to identify crime problems and target resources to tackle these problems". He adds that this tool facilitates the police to "focus efforts to crime hotspots, and by drawing on other local information such as population, deprivation and the location of different properties, help (them) to understand the problems in these areas". Chainey should know what he is talking about as he has several years of experience in working on crime mapping applications with police forces and Community Safety Partnerships in the United Kingdom.

The technique is not new and is probably as old as policing itself. We started with crude and unsophisticated maps showing the contours of a police station and its jurisdiction. This involved the manual posting of coloured pushpins on a map to indicate individual offences reported to the station. A lot depended on the whim and fancy of the Station House Officer. If he was embarrassed by a rash of crime, he could choose not to plot an offence or two on the map.

The arrival of computers has revolutionised storage of crime statistics, their display in a visually striking format and finally their analysis for intelligent action by law enforcement agencies. It has added a new dimension to investigation. Mapping, however, requires not only computerised statistics. It presupposes the availability of digital base-maps onto which computers can plot data.

A host of crimes such as murder, robbery, rape and kidnapping, which have a locational identity, are usefully studied in the context of where they have been committed. In a recent paper on the subject ("Crime Mapping and the Policing of Democratic Societies"), John Markovic and Christopher Stone of the Vera Institute describe how the geographical context of crime enhances its understanding. In their view, major transportation centres (train or bus stations), places where pedestrians congregate (parks, subway stations and bus stops), schools, business areas and recreation centres are all "important reference points". They function as either "crime generators" or "crime suppressors". Markovic and Stone would go to the extent of suggesting the incorporation of demographic information such as location of a criminal gang or a group of ex-convicts, levels of poverty and the dominance of a particular age group, as these are factors that assist in interpreting a surge or decline of crime in different neighbourhoods.

AN important factor to remember is that crime mapping is heavily dependent on maps prepared by government departments, especially civic bodies such as city councils. It is our experience that the level of details varies from country to country and city to city. In a place where there is no organised mapping of streets and where there are a number of clusters of informal settlements which defy identification (such as slums in a majority of Indian cities), crime mapping becomes a futile exercise. What is definitely needed is a standard street address information placed in latitude and longitude coordinates. Without this, the geocoding engine built into the mapping software cannot automatically review the data fed into it by the operator. This calls for, editing, and the process is time-consuming and defeats the very purpose of computerised crime mapping.

Crime mapping is being used extensively in many police departments in the United States. The one that has received acclaim is the CompStat system developed by the New York Police Department (NYPD). Meetings are held twice a week at which crime maps are analysed at great length to detect trends and also hold precinct or district officials accountable for any spurt in crime. During my recent visit to the Philadelphia Police crime mapping section, I had a brief chat with a young software consultant running the outfit along with a few others. I was pleasantly surprised to hear from her that the concept had become so popular among field operatives that many of them were asking her to produce a variety of maps - mostly Web-based - with reference to a range of factors such as location, time of the offence, its frequency, modus operandi, and offender background. In Belo Horizonte, CRISP has produced a very sophisticated application for the Minas Gerais Police. This helps generation of maps which highlight per capita rates of violent crime across police districts and over time. CRISP is also engaged in assessing the impact of high-visibility observation posts set up by the police in Belo Horizonte's business district.

A fascinating presentation made by two participants from South Africa at the conference highlighted the most practical aspect of crime mapping. It was interesting to know from them that the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) of South Africa actively collaborated with the police in producing crime maps and interpreting them for the benefit of criminal courts. Antony K. Cooper, Divisional Head of Information and Communications Technology of the CSIR and Police Superintendent Marius de Beer enthralled the audience by narrating how the two organisations effectively used desktop geographical information system (GIS) to plot cellular telephone conversations made during the commission of some crimes.

GIS-aided maps were cited in South African courts in three recent cases, two of which succeeded, while the third is pending judgment. The first case involved the hijacking of a motor vehicle, hostage-taking and the subsequent rape and murder of the victims. In the second case, four victims were shot by a sole individual. In the third, a businessman was kidnapped for ransom. In all three cases, cellular telephones were used before, during and after the crime. The police obtained billing records for the relevant cellular telephones, as well as the locations of the cellular-telephone base stations (transmitters) used and their areas of coverage. Using digital street maps of Cape Town and Durban, the locations of the telephones when the calls were made were plotted, together with those of the transmitters and their areas of coverage. In the Durban kidnapping case, based on his knowledge of the events and the area the investigating detective himself indicated the approximate position of the telephone when each call was made or received. The service provider identified the possible location from where the last call had originated and this helped the police to pinpoint the house where the victim was being held and free him as well as arrest the accused. In all the three cases, the maps drawn showed the approximate location of each telephone during each call and linked it with the time at which each call was made, its duration and a sequence number for the call. The maps simplified the prosecutor's task of giving a credible and easily understandable account of the run of events. To that extent, it made the defence plea of alibi hardly acceptable.

ONE strong argument in favour of crime mapping is that it meshes with the democratic requirements of transparency and accountability. Police performance is quite easily assessed with the help of maps. Where there is a repeated spurt in crime, the local police are obliged to answer quite a few questions, including whether any new strategy has been drawn up or not. Many scholars believe strongly that there should be free access to crime maps for the community and to individual citizens. It is common to see many U.S. forces placing such maps on the Internet. Also, in some cities, the maps are shared freely with community safety committees and other non-governmental organisations.

The U.S. practice considerably enhances police accountability to citizens. It also generates a variety of suggestions from the community on how to handle crime. This is the essence of community policing which, unfortunately, has become an empty slogan in many parts of our country. It is my hope that dynamic officers in the Indian Police - we have a large number of them at all levels - will take a cue or two from what transpired in Belo Horizonte. Crime mapping, which has not really taken off the ground in India, should become part of their routine. I am hopeful that both the media and the community will demand this as a matter of right with a view to giving a meaningful feedback to the police from time to time and seeking an improvement in the quality of service.