police car (ArtOlympic/Shutterstock.com)

How tech helps Chicago keep a lid on crime

Chicago Police Department’s (CPD) data-driven Strategic Decision Support Centers (SDSCs) are a promising tool for reducing crime, according to a new report.

Launched in 2017 and expanded in 2018, CPD’s SDSCs are district-level real-time crime centers in the form of small conference rooms with three staff members, including a dedicated supervisor at the lieutenant or sergeant level and a dedicated civilian crime analyst. They use a decision-support system with two main displays: a situational awareness map and a camera feed display from the city’s surveillance cameras. On the first, they can see and drill down to calls for help, automated license plate reader hits and the location of police units. The video feed display draws on about 35,000 remote-controlled surveillance cameras in CPD’s network. Viewers can see up to 16 feeds at a time.

The centers also use ShotSpotter, which has acoustic sensors to detect and triangulate the location of gunshots in near real time, geospatial predictive policing software that can identify high-risk areas for officers to focus on during their shifts, a social network analysis tool that shows co-arrest links to a given subject and a crime and victimization risk model that assesses a person's risk (either as a victim or perpetrator) to gun violence. Additionally, there is an SDSC app that officers can use in the field on department-issued smartphones.

According to a recent Rand report, districts can expect crime rates to fall anywhere from 4% to nearly 15% after implementing an SDSC. Robbery and burglary stood to see the most improvements at 14.8% and 12.9%, respectively, while battery’s 4.1% rounded out the 10 areas the report studied.

In Chicago, crime fell between 3% and 17% for the 10 categories, the report states. Rand, a nonprofit research organization, credits the decreases to the SDSCs’ ability to enable new responses to crimes and more general crime problems that were not previously possible.

“We found evidence that strategic decision support centers are supporting much higher levels of awareness by police -- and rapid decision-making using that awareness -- than had been present previously,” John Hollywood, lead author of the study and a senior operations researcher at Rand, said in the report's announcement. “Prior to the opening of the centers, commanders we interviewed described making decisions largely ad-hoc, based on whatever they heard about. Once the centers were in place, command decisions were much more structured and data-driven.”

Still, the centers have room for improvement, the report found. For instance, among the recommendations it makes to CPD is a need to “integrate technologies so that staff see displays of what is important to them.” Right now, information is split among tools, but if all sensor and crime-forecasting data could be integrated into the mapping display in SDSCs, it’s less likely that key information will be overlooked, the report states.

Other tech-related recommendations include improving camera placements so that users don’t have to frequently switch feeds, and moving the crime and violence reduction model to more flexible tools that integrate with service providers outside CPD.

The department has taken these suggestions to heart and established an oversight panel that coordinates the SDSCs. It includes a chief of technical services who handles infrastructure and technology.

About the Author

Stephanie Kanowitz is a freelance writer based in northern Virginia.

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