Crime map to cover region

Balto. County police say use of computer to help track trends

May be used nationally

Md. State Police, nearby jurisdictions to provide data

November 08, 1999|By Nancy A. Youssef | Nancy A. Youssef,SUN STAFF

In a program that could become a national model, Baltimore County is preparing to unveil a computerized crime map that would let police track regional crime trends -- and even identify suspects -- down to a block-by-block level.

The sophisticated mapping system, being developed with state and federal help, stems from an effort to cope with an increasingly blurred line between Baltimore- and Washington-area crimes and criminals.

"It's almost one continuous line," Baltimore County Police Chief Terrence B. Sheridan said of the region's crime patterns. "This will give us a much better idea of where our problems are."

While many local police departments use mapping programs to track crime within their borders, county officials say the system being developed would be faster and more detailed than those. More important, it would combine data from Maryland State Police and several area jurisdictions, from Baltimore County to Washington.

If all goes well, officials hope the system can be offered by the U.S. Department of Justice to police departments elsewhere in the nation.

"This system has to be flexible enough so that any police department can use it," said Philip R. Canter, chief statistician for the county's analysis unit.

Officials hope to have the computerized mapping system -- known as the Regional Crime Analysis Geographic Information System -- operating early next year.

With a few keystrokes, an officer would be able to generate a multicolored map displaying the number of crimes of a certain type in a particular area; when they occurred; and a pattern of arrests involving one particular suspect.

"There have been off-the-shelf products that could do mapping programs," said Pete Christensen, who leads data collection for the region. But he said those programs haven't taken advantage of the trend toward cooperation among local police departments.

Baltimore-area departments began working together in 1996 to track regional crime trends by submitting data to the Regional Crime Analysis System, based out of Anne Arundel County Police Department.

That system provided law enforcement officials with lists of incidents -- but no maps -- that helped them identify crime trends, said Christensen. Baltimore County, Baltimore City, Anne Arundel, Montgomery and Howard counties and the Maryland State Police participate in that system.

"We saw many, many criminals who are committing the same kind of crime in two jurisdictions or more," Christensen said. "If you can map it, you can better see the trends."

Designing the system

In 1997, impressed by the area's efforts to keep regional crime statistics, the U.S. Department of Justice approached Baltimore County about designing a regional crime mapping system, said John DeVoe, chief of the Geographic Information System staff at the U.S. Department of Justice.

Since then, Canter has worked with the Justice Department to design a program for the Baltimore region. The county Police Department also tapped into a $135,000 state grant to help underwrite the effort.

The computerized system would allow officers to choose certain factors -- types of crimes, for example -- and create a map displaying the information within a minute.

Tracing the links

Local police find slower, less sophisticated programs useful.

When Baltimore County police were investigating a string of residential burglaries in Essex two years ago, they used a local program, known as MapInfo, to pinpoint each incident and discover a link when they marked those addresses on a map, said Canter.

"Clearly they were occurring at homes that backed into wooded areas," Canter said, prompting police to watch wooded areas and link the crimes.

The new mapping system would make that type of mapping faster and regional, Canter said. It also would include:

Aerial photos of communities to mark criminal activity.

An ability to track where criminals live and to draw lines between those charged and their homes to see if they could be linked to other nearby crimes.

A feature that labels crime hot spots, so officials know where to target their resources.

Missing data

But officials caution that the success of the system will depend on how many departments submit information, and how complete their information is. Prince George's County has not submitted information to the regional system, and Baltimore City has submitted some of its crime data.

"The validity of the system is dependent on the accuracy and the completeness of the information submitted," said DeVoe.

Still, officials are optimistic about the regional mapping system, which they say eventually could be accessible from officers' patrol cars and available to local police departments at a cost of $100 per computer.

The concept got a mention in a campaign speech by Vice President Al Gore in July.

"We can begin by making it easier for local enforcement to track the latest crime trends -- block by block, crime by crime," Gore said. "I will work to give police new computerized crime-mapping software -- so they know which hot spots to target, and which places still need to be made safe."

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