The names are in the machine

CRIME BEAT

March 08, 2009|By PETER HERMANN

Cops are calling them treasure maps for crime, and the possibilities seem endless:

* Not only can the new maps show the location of all the protective orders filed by battered women that need to be served by police in Maryland, but they can isolate the ones for spouses with gun licenses. Maybe those are the ones that should be served first.

* Not only can they show the location of every bar, tavern and liquor store in Baltimore, but they can zoom in on ones surrounded by homes of violent offenders. Maybe those are the bars beat cops should patrol more closely.

* And not only can they show unsolved homicides clumped in one part of the city, but whether any convicts out on probation for violent offenses live nearby.

"These are the people you want to talk to," says Kristen M. Mahoney, executive director of the Governor's Office on Crime Control and Prevention. "These are the people who are in the game."

Finding people "in the game" is getting easier with every stroke of the computer keyboard.

Since February, nearly every law enforcement officer in Maryland has a new tool called "Dashboard" that draws data from at least two dozen separate Maryland sources and funnels the information onto a single computer screen.

Want to know how much money a convicted felon had in his prison bank account? It's there. Want to know if the man you think raped his neighbor has his DNA on file? It's there. Want to know if someone is on probation? Not only can you find out he is, but you'll find others in his neighborhood who are, the names of their probation agents, whether they have hunting or fishing licenses, lists of traffic tickets, whether they're registered sex offenders or owe back taxes.

In just five weeks, cops across the state have conducted more than 10,000 searches of the database.

Mahoney told me the information on Dashboard is now restricted to verifiable data, not intelligence that could be interpreted differently by different people, though some police agencies want a gang database to be added to the list.

We've already seen what can happen when the Maryland State Police spy on protest groups - names of peace activists who did nothing more than exercise their rights to protest the death penalty ended up on terrorism watch lists. I wouldn't want those names popping up on computer screens in squad cars during routine traffic stops.

Dashboard is the next evolution of Compstat, the computer crime mapping program that has morphed into iterations that analyze everything from crime protection to the preserving the Chesapeake Bay. The idea is to give workers real-time information so they can quickly identify patterns and deploy.

The technology is moving out of fancy "war rooms" and into offices, and maybe soon into patrol cars. Police in Washington contribute to the Dashboard, and Mahoney said they will likely feed the mapping program as well. Mahoney's team recently handed the D.C. police chief a map showing 694 juveniles who committed crimes in Maryland but live in the district, clustered around two Metro lines.

Dashboard and the maps stem from the state's Violence Prevention Initiative, in which 2,300 violent offenders on probation - 1,540 are in Baltimore - are singled out for scrutiny because of their "high propensity for committing future violent crimes."

Homicides in Baltimore dropped from 431 in the 18 months before the program started in July 2007 to 361 in the 18 months after. Likewise, shootings in the city dropped from 1,028 to 867 during the same time.

The maps are generated by researchers at Washington College on the Eastern Shore, using a $150,000 state grant. The college is asking for $200,000 next year.

The maps are impressive, but police need to be careful.

Prince George's County police, for example, wanted to compare home addresses of the most prolific users of pawnshops to burglary hot spots. The map shows a guy who pawned up to $50,000 of merchandise in six months living in the middle of an area hit hard by burglaries in Landover. In Baltimore, there's the map showing clusters of violent offenders who live near bars.

The maps are certainly fascinating and raise legitimate suspicion, but do they prove the guy who likes to use pawnshops broke into homes or that people on probation shouldn't live near bars? Is there even a crime problem at these bars?

The maps and data might lead to more patrols and tighter scrutiny, might even be combined with other intelligence to build a criminal case. In the end, police will be judged not only on the usefulness of the information but also on how they use it. It shouldn't be dismissed as Orwellian, but the cops need to understand its Orwellian potential.

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