Crime Analysis: Best Practices

The invention of the personal computer and crime-mapping software launched crime analysis as a profession. Current homeland security challenges are leading to more sophisticated technology solutions and attention to improved analysis, but basic technologies remain the core tools of professional crime analysts.

In this article, analysts and experts in the field discuss some of the technology and best practices in use in crime analysis today.

The Lincoln (Neb.) Police Department, By Chief Tom Casady

As soon as the volume of police incidents exceeds the capacity of an individual to read every police report, recall every detail and intuit every relationship, technology becomes vital to analysis. In other words, about the time you hit case number three, you need help.

Analysis technology can be as simple as a card file or as complex as a relational database with all the trimmings. Several specific types of software prove valuable for analysis: Databases, spreadsheets, linking and charting, and geographic information system software come immediately to mind.

To effectively utilize these technologies, analysts must have capable computers and connectivity to the computer systems where the source data resides. It’s vital for the department to have a quality records management system (RMS) and communications backbone.

Simple technologies can be incredibly useful. Basic things such as sorting records by date can prove quite powerful in large data sets. More sophisticated capabilities, such as geocoding records for spatial trend analysis, predictive analysis based on mathematical probability, and link analysis is increasingly occurring in departments around the country.

 What’s Lincoln Using?

At the Lincoln Police Department (LPD), the RMS is the fundamental technological building block of our crime analysis unit (CAU). The capability to query the data for patterns, trends and relationships is at the heart of analysis.

Access to the databases of other enterprises is also a crucial tool for our unit. Such things as the State Sex Offender Registry, the Department of Correctional Services’ data about past and present inmates, and even public-source data such as the County Assessor’s online property information all prove very valuable.

Our analysts use a variety of tools,  such as graphics software, GIS software, spreadsheets, desktop publishing, etc., and the very best analysis is only valuable when it’s communicated to people who can act upon it. Reporting software (such as Crystal Reports), presentation software (such as PowerPoint), desktop publishing software (such as PageMaker) and business graphics software (such as Visio) are useful tools for preparing both electronic and paper communications.

Products and processes that make crime analyst’s documents and information available via the Internet are particularly important at the LPD. The Web browser is our preferred method of disseminating information. We use Web conferencing services (not video conferencing) to distribute briefings to employees at diverse locations across Lincoln.

The hardware side of technology is also important. Analysts must have competent personal computers and fast connections, and regularly upgraded and maintained servers and host systems. Your communications backbone must also be fast and stable.

We make great use of large plasma and LCD monitors (primarily 50 inchers) for displaying analytical products such as maps, informational PowerPoints and images related to trends and patterns. Four networked business-class color laser printers strategically located throughout our facilities allow our analysts to readily produce sufficient quantities of printed materials that would be impractical with desktop printers. For many analytical products, color adds an important component that helps people distill the information.

 An Example

The following example is a short story about information technology contributing to police work in our town. It’s not a big case and not particularly flashy, but when I think about it, it seems to be a remarkable example of how the flow of information in investigations has changed.

I had tickets to a Nebraska vs. Oklahoma State football game on a Saturday. Before heading out to the game, I checked my e-mail. Among the dozen or so was one from myself, the result of an automated threshold alert. The alert is one of over 40 automatic queries that run every morning in the wee hours using data from our records management system and our geographic crime-analysis software, CrimeView.

This particular query is one I wrote last summer after our city council adopted a residency restriction on certain high-risk sex offenders. The ordinance prohibits Level 3 high-risk offenders whose victim was under the age of 19 from residing within 500 feet of a school. At the time it was being debated, some people wondered how in the world we could enforce it.

Here’s how: The query looks into the 1.5 million names in the department’s master name index, finds the registered sex offenders and determines which are classified as Level 3 high-risk offenders. Next, CrimeView creates 500′ buffers around each of Lincoln’s schools and determines which of these offenders’ addresses fall within these buffers.

Finally, it checks the date of the address. Because you can’t enforce an ex post facto law, the residency restriction only applies after July 1, 2006. Whenever we update a person’s address in our master name index, we also store the date of the address update. My query looks at new addresses.

The e-mail I received gave me the results of my query: There was a high-risk offender with a new address, just updated on Friday, who now appeared to be living within 500 feet of a school. I opened CrimeView on my laptop and measured the distance from property line to property line at 260 feet against the backdrop of Lincoln’s orthorectified aerial photos. I checked the Nebraska State Patrol’s online sex offender registry and determined this offender’s victim was 14 years old.

I printed that page as a PDF file and e-mailed it to Captain Dennis Duckworth, Saturday morning’s duty commander at HQ. He assigned Officer Steve Niemeyer to investigate. Niemeyer found the offender at home and cited him for the violation. He’d just moved into the apartment and alleged that his landlord had told him that he was 900 feet from the school. Niemeyer had already used Google Earth to make his own estimate of 265 ft., but as one final check, he used a Rolatape to measure a precise distance of 253 feet, lot to lot.

At 1307 hrs, I received an e-mail from Niemeyer letting me know he had handled the matter, and providing me the case number so I could read the reports online after the game.

That’s a heck of a lot of technology squeezed into a misdemeanor.


The Pierce County (Wash.) Sheriff’s Department, By John Gottschalk, crime analyst

The Pierce County Sheriff’s CAU has been operational since May 1998 and currently consists of two civilian analysts and a commissioned sergeant supervisor functioning in an analyst capacity. The unit accesses crime data through a countywide Law Enforcement Support Agency (LESA). This contracted firm provides our records management and communications/dispatch.

The CAU crime analysis unit accesses data primarily through Microsoft Access using Open DataBase Connectivity (ODBC), a Microsoft universal data access standard. That data is analyzed with a variety of software, but primarily Access, Microsoft Excel and ARC GIS mapping software. The unit also uses Bair Software’s ATAC program provided by LESA for detailed analysis of specific crime types that have smaller data sets. Additionally, we use the Navy’s NCIS Law Enforcement Information Exchange NW system, which ties many county/city jurisdictions data together for cross jurisdictional search capability and link analysis. Our ARC GIS program has tools incorporated for spatial/temporal analysis.

The CAU has individual work stations with state of the art computers, and each person has two, side-by-side 23″ LCD monitors to aid in multi-program/window display, along with a 42″ plotter for large-format print jobs in addition to multiple small-format printers.

Our CAU holds a weekly crime briefing for selected offense types that have occurred over the previous week. The precinct commander, patrol sergeants, detectives, community service teams and neighborhood patrol team members are invited for a free exchange of information.

During the briefing, each of our three analysts takes one or two offense types to discuss any possible clusters, trends, series or specific suspect information noted. We also use the briefing to show surveillance-system photos or video that may show suspect(s) or vehicle(s) from incidents that week that might be recognized by people attending the briefing.

We use the Jail Booking & Reporting System (JBRS) to check for release dates on offenders currently incarcerated and for automatic release notification. We have access to our state’s Department of Licensing database via a search tool that supports partial plate searches for Washington. We’ve also just started to develop ties and program/data sharing with the South Sound Regional Intelligence Group.

The unit has access to list servers such as LEAnalyst and CrimeMap, as well as close connection with other statewide analysts through our Northwest Regional Crime Analyst Network (NORCAN). We have a county GIS department that’s been incredibly supportive in developing Web-based Sex Offender Search and Crime mapping programs for us and provides a multitude of data sources and sharing with many other county departments.

The Irvine (Calif.) Police Department, By Lorie Velarde, crime analyst

Analysts at the Irvine Police Department (IPD) use technology to collect, analyze and disseminate information. Analysts first use the department’s paperless report-writing system daily to collect data from crime reports and calls for service. This data is synthesized into daily, weekly and monthly reports used to identify sprees, series, patterns and trends.

IPD analysts utilize three crime mapping systems to refine the patterns. After patterns and trends have been analyzed, the information is disseminated to officers via electronic crime bulletins and analytic products.

IPD analysts also make use of geographic profiling, a methodology of analyzing crimes to determine the most likely location of offender residence. Geographic profiling is used by analysts to provide leads for detectives, and several cases have been solved through these leads.

In one, crime analysts at the IPD used geographic profiling in a residential burglary series to identify the best location to place officers. Analysts also identified temporal patterns associated with the series, and officers were able to identify the offender based on the information provided by crime analysts. This case was awarded the 2006 IACP/ChoicePoint Award for Criminal Investigative Excellence as well as the International Association of Law Enforcement Intelligence Analysts award to the municipal organization making the most significant progress utilizing intelligence analytical techniques to support law enforcement objectives.


The Arlington (Texas) Police Department, By Jim Mallard, crime analysis supervisor

A common complaint many analysts share is the time-consuming task of preparing for CompStat meetings. The Arlington (Texas) Police Department (APD) has solved this problem by leveraging the automation available in Microsoft Office and ESRI’s ArcGIS suite. The APD uses these tools to prepare its bi-weekly version of CompStat called MANAGER.

Data is first imported into Access and restructured for presentation. The data is linked to Excel, which is used to generate charts and graphs. Finally, the Excel charts and graphs are linked to PowerPoint for the MANAGER presentation. The result: Our analysts no longer have to create new graphs for each presentation. They simply update the existing graphs with new data.

Crime-map layers used in the meetings are produced using models built in ESRI’s ModelBuilder application. The models output crime incident locations, crime hotspots and graduated symbol layers showing repeat crime locations. A custom-built application symbolizes the rasters in a consistent manner.

The MANAGER map is provided department-wide via ESRI’s free ArcReader application and is also used during the meetings. The map provides police managers with a comprehensive perspective of crime in Arlington.

Preparation for MANAGER meetings used to require four to six hours to complete, and it still provided limited information. Through a combination of technology and creativity, the APD’s CAU now produces a high quality product in less than one hour.


The Police Foundation, By Greg Jones, research & crime mapping coordinator

 I look at crime analysis in three distinct parts. First, successful units use technology by employing and supporting well-trained analysts. Technology is useless unless you have

properly trained analysts who possess the necessary skills, knowledge and abilities to incorporate technology into their work. Successful units ensure their analysts understand various concepts, such as geographic information systems (GIS) and problem solving; various strategies, such as problem-oriented policing and community-oriented policing; and the theoretical underpinnings of crime, etc.

Hire analysts with higher education or help your current analysts further their education in criminal justice or related fields. Send your analysts to regional and national training conferences and/or training classes to learn new ways of using existing tools and technologies. And get buy-in from the decision makers about the importance of analysis in policing.

Second, successful units have a comprehensive understanding of the technology itself and can tailor it to their agency’s needs. They select the best technologies to support their unit and the agency’s overall goals. They understand not only their current capabilities, but have a vision of future capabilities. They understand how crime trends and patterns constantly change and adapt, and how they too must adapt by making better use of technology. Moreover, they have a solid technological infrastructure that allows analysts to conduct true analysis instead of being constantly bogged down by requests and other administrative tasks unrelated to their job description.

Third, successful units use GIS technology to understand and identify crime patterns and trends, and repeat and serial offenders; create analytical products to support investigations, crime suppression and crime prevention strategies; and to inform their communities about crime and disorder problems.


The Durham Regional Police Service (Ontario), By Brenda Tilley, crime analysis coordinator

Multi-dimensional databases, also known as “cubes”, are the next generation of standardized reporting. They don’t eliminate the importance of reading and reviewing narratives and other details buried in reports, but they do allow online reviewing, searching and querying of spatial, temporal, modus operandi and other attributes of reported crime. Categorized data is now by Uniform Crime Report standards, and applicable system business rules ensure data quality.

The cube-building software provides standard counts and views. Posting this information to all the crime analysts therefore provides them a homogeneous view of the numbers with the same applied methodology. Methodologies and assumptions are posted with disclaimers to educate the reader and ensure them they are comparing their apples with apples.

How do we do we achieve success at our Police Service? Our strong and positive relationship with the IT department is number one. Coordination and cooperation take the basic query, database, spreadsheet, word processing, association charting and mapping tools to the next level.

A replication server of the RMS is the basic platform our analysts use to access details via an ODBC connection (you only need to compromise production once to convince IT of the value of a replication server). Using Sequel Query Language (SQL) gives us the flexibility to extract the data for our various requests. Standardized count views with cube-building tools complement the analyst’s goal to direct more time on analyzing.

We disseminate our info via a simple Web link through the police agency’s intranet. (The intranet proves particularly valuable when your agency spans 1,000 square miles.)  Note: Always source and note assumptions and limitations of your counts, statistics or spatial/temporal analysis findings. This practice will help you uncover any problems with data integrity and possibly improve future reporting quality if shortfalls are discovered.


The Future

Crime analysis is one of the most technologically advanced and integrated aspects of policing. Without technology, many current crime analysis processes would be impossible. Future trends include advanced visualization tools, advanced mapping and advanced data-mining with text analytics. Jacksonville, Fla., Sheriff’s Crime Analysis, Research & Development Department employs the text analytics tool called ixReveal, pushing it to the cutting edge of the next wave of crime analysis.

Technology is a crime analysis tool, and as those who contributed to this article emphasize, some of the best tools remain simple and basic: word processing, spreadsheets and the Internet. They are as essential as a patrol car, a radio and a gun.

Also, these and more advanced tools are worthless unless the user is trained and skilled. Hire and train your analysts to take advantage of the new knowledge technology that can help create to help you work smarter and keep our streets safer.

Finally, invest in working technology because technology is the future of the collaboration and analysis needed in our post-Sept. 11 world.



Tom Casady has served as Lincoln’s police chief since January 1994. He’s a lifetime member of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, and a member of the International Association of Crime Analysts and Police Executive Research Forum. Casady has coordinated several police technology projects, focusing on communications, information systems, mobile data and GIS.

John Gottschalk has worked for more than 10 years as a crime research analyst for the Pierce County (Wash.) Sheriff’s Department. He has a degree in GIS.

Greg Jones serves as the research and crime mapping coordinator at the Police Foundation and specializes in the use of GIS, crime mapping and crime analysis, and problem analysis in policing. He coordinates, formats and co-edits the award-winning and internationally distributed Crime Mapping News. He also has extensive experience with conducting survey research and needs assessments related to training and technology.

Jim Mallard is the crime analysis supervisor for the Arlington (Texas) Police Department. He manages a team of four crime analysts and an operations research analyst. Mallard previously worked for the Gainesville (Fla.) Police Department where he developed his interest in fusing technology with crime analysis. He’s also volunteered as the Web master for the International Association of Crime Analysts since 2004, and in 2008, he won the Innovations in Crime Analysis Award sponsored by Corona Solutions, Inc. The award recognized his creative approach to automating CompStat processes.

Deborah Osborne was a crime analyst for the Buffalo (N.Y.) Police Department for 10 years and is the co-author of Introduction to Crime Analysis: Basic Resources for Criminal Justice Practice. She wrote the book Out of Bounds: Innovation and Change in Law Enforcement Intelligence Analysis while she was a remote Research Fellow for the Joint Military Intelligence College, which is now the National Defense Intelligence College. She blogs on crime and intelligence analysis at

Brenda Tilley has worked in policing for the past two decades and has spent the past seven years with the Durham Regional Police Service in Ontario, Canada, as crime analysis coordinator. Tilley is also involved with the local university that is five years new, where she instructs the spatial component of crime and GIS tools with the faculty of Criminology, Justice and Policy Studies.

Lorie Velarde is a GIS analyst with the Irvine (Calif.) Police Department and an instructor of Geographic Profiling Analysis. During her 22-year law enforcement career, she has designed and implemented a department-wide GIS, instructed on the use of GIS to analyze crime and published in the area of geographic profiling. Velarde is currently consulting on a project involving the spatial analysis of incident data from the Middle East.


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