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Crime surging? Here’s how technology can help

Layering the latest tools and following four key steps can help you get a handle on problem locations

birmingham police real time crime center

Integrating tools like live-streaming cameras, license plate-reading cameras, gunshot-detection systems, drones and other technology allows law enforcement to do something that hasn’t been possible in the past: be extremely precise.

Carol Robinson

Policing in America is in trouble. The challenges we face today are unprecedented. Staffing shortages, recruiting challenges, shrinking budgets and constant criticism from all forms of media – all these issues paint a grim picture of the future of the law enforcement profession.

Why the atmosphere around public safety has shifted so dramatically over the past few years is open to debate. Some claim a collection of enforcement-related sentinel events is the catalyst, while others point to the coronavirus pandemic. While the reason can be debated, everyone can agree that something happened to cause this shift and that this shift has been associated with a rise in crime.

These events have resulted in law enforcement seeking ways to combat crime effectively with fewer people and resources. Historical methods of crime suppression revolved around pressure and force: When a crime spike occurred, the law enforcement response was to send dozens or hundreds of officers into the area as a show of force. The result was that vehicle and pedestrian detentions rose dramatically, and entire communities felt targeted. This tactic only exacerbated the problem in many cases, since many innocent citizens were caught in the proverbial crosshairs. Rather than convincing citizens to help, it often turned them against the police, resulting in even more friction.

So, what is the solution? How does law enforcement adapt to a changing world with fewer resources while still working to lower crime? To find the answer, one must have a basic understanding of how a potential criminal thinks.

Crime is a choice

When you break down why a person commits a crime, it comes down to a simple concept: The individual chooses to commit a crime. With the exception of those who suffer from mental illness and don’t know right from wrong, the vast majority of individuals who engage in criminal activity make conscious choices to do so. Now, the reasoning behind their decisions can involve a number of factors, such as their socioeconomic background, environmental factors, personal beliefs and others. But in general, when a crime is committed, there is either an emotional reaction driving it or a desire to commit a crime. Law enforcement will never be able to police emotion or desire, so addressing these two things directly is foolhardy.

The only thing that can realistically stop emotion or desire in the mind of a potential criminal is the belief in immediate consequences. If an individual’s belief in consequences is higher than their emotional trigger or level of desire to commit a crime, then the individual will choose to not commit the crime. Here’s an example.

Imagine a room that contains a table. On top of the table is a suitcase filled with $100 bills. Outside the room are two people. One is a normal person who doesn’t engage in criminal activity, and the other is a person who has engaged in criminal behavior their entire life. Both are told the suitcase belongs to a person who needs the money to pay their bills and buy groceries for their family. Both individuals are told if they can make it out of the room with the money, they get to keep it.

Odds are the normal person will enter the room, then leave empty-handed. That person has a moral compass, understands right from wrong and knows taking the money will have a negative effect on another. This person doesn’t allow desire or emotion to overrule their decision-making process because they know there will be consequences for either themselves or another person.

However, the individual with criminal tendencies generally doesn’t have this moral compass, and their desire drives their decision-making process. Their choices are more centered around their personal benefit, and they have little regard for how their actions affect others. Since there is no threat of immediate consequences, they choose to commit the crime.

Now imagine the same room, except this time there is a group of police officers guarding the exit. Both individuals are told they will be watched the entire time by the officers, and any attempts to take the money will result in immediate arrest. Both individuals exit the room empty-handed. So why did the individual with criminal tendencies refrain from taking the money this time? It’s simple: Their immediate belief in consequences was stronger than their emotion or desire.

That is what law enforcement needs to focus on: trying to establish the belief that consequences will occur in a very precise manner for potential criminals while simultaneously excluding innocent citizens from any collateral enforcement. Simple, right? How do we do it? There’s really only one way, and that’s through the effective use of technology.

How technology can help

Technology-driven policing is the process of utilizing technology to proactively disrupt and reactively investigate crime. Integrating tools like live-streaming cameras, license plate-reading cameras, gunshot-detection systems, drones and other technology allows law enforcement to do something that hasn’t been possible in the past: be extremely precise. This is why real-time crime centers are becoming so important. Without a centralized location to manage and utilize the technology, the agency will not maximize the return on its investment.

To use technology to eliminate crime and establish the belief of consequences in the minds of potential criminals, you need four ingredients: the right technology to match the problem, unwavering attention to the problem, consistency in enforcement and follow-through.

Let’s use an illegal open-air drug market as an example. Many agencies have such locations where the criminal element congregates. They are almost universally high-crime locations that experience both property and violent crime. There have been numerous strategies used in the past to combat these locations. A technology-driven approach to this problem following the four rules above would require the following steps.

1. Match technology to the problem

The first step to shutting down an illegal open-air drug market with a technology-driven approach is to understand the problem. Do buyers come to the location on foot or in vehicles? Are the dealers selling in the street, a parking lot, an alley, or somewhere else? What other types of crimes are occurring at the location?

Let’s assume drug buyers are approaching the location both on foot and in vehicles. The first thing that needs to be established is a way to monitor the location 24 hours a day in real-time, so an overt fixed or PTZ (pan/tilt/zoom) camera needs to be installed at the location. The camera should not be hidden – being visible is part of the process.

Additionally, since vehicles are being used, the location needs to be boxed in with fixed ALPR cameras to alert to any stolen or wanted vehicles in addition to developing leads on any criminal offenses related to vehicles at the location. Lastly, gunshot-detection devices surrounding the location to alert officers of shootings or firearm discharges should be deployed. These three layers of technology are the foundation for surgically addressing this issue.

2. Unwavering attention on the problem

The second step is to actively monitor everything that occurs at the location through the layered technology, with the goal of spotting crimes in real-time. This effort has to be consistent, as that is key to establishing the belief in consequences. If some crimes are ignored, the process takes much longer. Only through unwavering attention to what is occurring can this process take hold.

3. Consistency of enforcement

Once a crime is spotted on camera or an ALPR/shot-detection alert is received, response and enforcement should be immediate. The most important aspect of a technology-driven approach to crime mitigation is being consistent with response and enforcement. This is the only way to establish the belief in consequences. Additionally, individuals taken into custody should be educated that the response was due to their actions being observed on camera or through technology. The goal is to establish that any criminal acts will be seen from the cameras, and enforcement will be immediate.

4. Follow-through

Assuming the agency has followed the three steps above and remained consistent and vigilant, odds are it will start to see a dramatic slowdown of crime at the location. Word will spread that the location is being heavily monitored and any crimes will be met with swift enforcement. The criminal element will likely abandon the market and go to another location, where the same tactic should be repeated. However, the technology in the first location should not be removed, or the agency risks the possibility the location will be reoccupied.

At this point, the devices have become a tool that contributes to the belief that there will be consequences for criminal activity. This is why they need to be overt and not hidden: By being visible, they can become a deterrent, but only if the above steps have been properly followed. Only by following through and continuing to ensure the location isn’t being reoccupied will it remain closed for good.

This concept can be expanded beyond an illegal open-air drug market, but as it expands it becomes even more important for the agency to ensure that policies, procedures and transparency with the community are in place. There is little reason to hide the capabilities of police technology, and doing so only invites the perception that law enforcement is misusing or abusing the technology. Only by making the community a partner in this mission can it truly be successful.

Following these steps will produce real and measurable results from technology. Simply having technology without a dedicated enforcement aspect will produce frustration and an inaccurate assumption the investment was wasted. As technology gets deployed in a policing agency, the agency must begin to shift its focus to technology response.

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Dalton Webb is a retired Sergeant who spent 18 years with the Fort Worth Police Department in Fort Worth, TX. He spent his career in a variety of assignments and developed the FWPD Real-Time Crime Center as an officer in 2012. Dalton retired as the supervisor over the RTCC in addition to being a Deputy Director over the FWPD Fusion Center.

As a law enforcement instructor and speaker, Dalton has become one of the nation’s leaders on training and developing strategies on the concepts of integrating crime centers and technology into the daily mission of policing agencies. Under his leadership, the Fort Worth Real-Time Crime Center became a national model for technology-driven policing. Dalton helped found the National Real-Time Crime Center Association and was the first Vice President of Training and Development.

He is currently the Director of RTCC Strategy for Flock Safety and frequently assists agencies with RTCC development and training. Connect with and follow Dalton on LinkedIn.