Police official quits, attacks use of crime databases

Chief defends accuracy of city's information

December 05, 2003|By Del Quentin Wilber | Del Quentin Wilber,SUN STAFF

The city Police Department's director of information technology abruptly quit last month and, in a stinging resignation letter, criticized the foundation of the agency's efforts to combat crime - its use of computer databases to understand what is happening on the streets and, as a result, determine where to deploy officers.

Referring to dozens of databases the city force uses to track crimes, arrests, recovered property and other information, G. Thomas Steele, who was on the job slightly more than two months, wrote that the department's data were "inaccurate and at best unreliable."

"In its present form, much of the data cannot be effectively used," Steele wrote. He concluded his letter by saying that the department "will continue its inability to properly use technology to collect, validate and apply strategic and tactical information in crime fighting endeavors."

Steele refused to comment and referred inquires to city police.

City police, who rely heavily on information and data to fight crime, rebutted the letter's strongest criticism, and said Steele had not been with the agency long enough to fully understand the data in the computer systems. Steele joined the department in early September after holding a similar job with the Maryland State Police.

Commissioner Kevin P. Clark, noting Steele's brief tenure, said, "I find it surprising that he was able to do such an in-depth analysis of technology here and to arrive at those conclusions."

Clark also defended the accuracy of the crime data, saying that Steele was "off-base."

"The data I rely on is fairly accurate," Clark said, adding that Steele was a technical expert and was not experienced in police deployment strategies.

The department played down Steele's abrupt departure, and Clark said that the IT director resigned because he was having trouble with a supervisor. The department does not intend to replace Steele.

In his letter, the departing computer expert complained that the senior officer who had recruited him was transferred shortly after Steele arrived, and that his new supervisor did "not recognize my value and experience."

Those who know Steele say he has a solid reputation for using data to fight crime and has worked for the Metropolitan Police Department in Washington and the Alexandria Police Department in Virginia.

He is a nationally known information technology specialist who serves on the International Association of Chiefs of Police Communications and Technology committee, where he has earned a reputation for his intelligence and insight, committee members said.

"He's very smart," said Thomas J. Roche, chief of the Gates Police Department in New York state and vice chairman of the technology committee. "Tom Steele is one of the most respected members of the committee for his knowledge and expertise."

While Steele has not been working since mid-November, he remains on the department roster through Dec. 16. His job was being funded by the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area program in Greenbelt, and he sent his resignation letter to Thomas Carr, the director of that program, in addition to city police officials.

When Mayor Martin O'Malley took office in late 1999, he began pushing the Police Department to use a rigorous examination of crime statistics to better deploy resources. Since then, police officials have promoted that process, known as ComStat, for helping them substantially reduce crime.

"ComStat is highly dependent on the quality of information that goes into it," said Jack Greene, dean of the College of Criminal Justice at Northeastern University in Boston. "It highly depends on the quality of its systems and its analysts."

Steele's letter does not address the veracity of department crime figures supplied to the FBI for the annual Uniform Crime Report. On Tuesday, a summary of an internal audit found the agency had underreported rapes to the FBI last year by 15 percent.

Clark said in an interview that his agency was taking steps - including creating a unit in the internal affairs division to audit reports - to keep closer tabs on crime numbers. He also said he is confident in the accuracy of the department's statistics.

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