Computer program keeps tabs on crime High-tech maps help police track trends

October 30, 1997|By Jill Hudson | Jill Hudson,SUN STAFF

When thousands of pint-sized ghouls and goblins go scampering through the streets on their trick-or-treat routes tomorrow night, Howard County police will be using a high-tech computer program to keep their Halloween more safe than scary.

Throughout the county, police officers will be carrying detailed maps showing them exactly where the types of crimes typical for Halloween have occurred in the past.

"We know we're going to have a higher number of reports of vandalism tomorrow because it happens every year on Halloween," said George Koch, an analyst with the Howard Police Department's crime analysis unit. Last month, the unit began using a computer program called MapInfo to give a visual representation of the when, where, what -- and possibly who -- of crimes.

"Now we'll be able to lay out some sort of enforcement plan for Halloween," said Koch, who will look at the number of reports of assaults, robberies and vandalism from the past two Halloweens to map a pattern of trouble.

Howard County is one of the latest police forces in Maryland and around the country that has done away with tracking crimes by using colored pushpins on a wall map.

MapInfo -- which cost $3,500 and was funded by a federal grant under the Safe and Drug Free School and Communities Act -- lets police target crime hot spots by city, neighborhood and streets. Police use the computer technology to determine where they need increased coverage, spotting trends easily when a colorful map plots out patterns of crime.

At least four other Maryland jurisdictions -- Anne Arundel, Baltimore and Prince George's counties and Baltimore -- are using a computer mapping program. Some of these counties are sharing data to help track crimes that cross county lines.

The mapping programs are easy to use, said Koch, who helped start the Baltimore County police program before coming to work in Howard as a civilian.

The programs take information from police databases that come in through 911 calls and police reports. The data include where crimes have occurred, what types of crimes they were, locations of known criminals. The program then translates the data into colorful symbols that are superimposed onto county maps.

Police say the program allows them to spot trends by looking for clusters of crime. They can also determine which known criminals live closest to an incident.

Koch is a whiz at showing just how effective the computer program can be at finding crime hot spots. Different colored dots pop onto the screen for each crime and appear on a map. The maps -- which can show an entire county or a neighborhood -- can be printed in color and distributed to officers each day before they go on patrol.

About 100 police departments across the country use the MapInfo program. Worldwide, 50 more have bought the program.

Police say the program allows them to see patterns of countywide crime and shows them what to do about it.

"By updating the data on a daily basis, we can see trends in the types of crime that have been on the rise in the county," Koch said. "Once we're able to connect databases with other jurisdictions in the state and country, we'll be able to see these trends on one centralized map."

Howard County saw a 12.6 percent increase in the number of property crimes from January through June this year, compared with the same period last year. Violent crimes like murder, rape and robbery are on the way down, police statistics show.

While computer programs like MapInfo may aid police in preventing crime, "early detection of crime is key to stopping a pattern," Koch said. "A computer will never replace good old-fashion police work."

Pub Date: 10/30/97

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