The Fight Against Crime: Notes From the Front : Police Take Steps Into the Electronic Age


Used to be that police officers policed by driving around, waiting for a call or investigating suspicious activity.

Information about recent crimes consisted only of what a superior officer could quickly explain during roll call.

"In the best-case scenario, what an officer was armed with was information he could remember, and generally that was information that only dealt with his specific geographic location," said Robert Stresak, who for the past five years has worked to change the situation.

Stresak heads the Los Angeles Police Department's Crime Analysis Unit, which began in 1989 to bring the department's information storage and retrieval systems into the electronic age.

The key is the computers that are now in every station. Stresak and the rest of the CAU have developed the equipment, programs and training to allow each station to input what used to be hand-sorted police reports and access those specific pieces that will help them find and arrest criminals.

Years ago, officers might have gotten a roll call briefing about an individual auto theft from the previous watch. One of the officers might have added that a few weeks earlier, he investigated a similar incident.

But if that officer had been out sick that day, or the previous crime had been committed just over the border in another LAPD division, that opportunity to establish an emerging pattern could have been missed.

Not any more.

With the help of the computers, officers investigating a car burglary make a request of their station's Crime Analysis Detail, composed of the officers who have been trained to use the computerized system. A computer analysis can tell them, for example, if there has been a rash of reports in a three-block vicinity of the most recent crime, all on Tuesdays, all between 11 p.m. and 2 a.m. and that Toyotas are the No. 1 target.

"The overall objective of the mission was to provide patrol and detectives with better information to do their jobs," Stresak said.

One of the more successful applications of their new technology has been the automated mapping system, Stresak said. Captains were asked to identify high-crime areas, variables that could contribute to that concentration--such as density of liquor stores, number of registered offenders in the area, and high residential turnover--and then come up with plans to reduce crime in those pockets.

With the aid of the computers, not only was this task infinitely easier, but more productive. Now, instead of officers looking at a wall map in the roll-call room decorated with red tacks, they can have their own computer-printed maps of crime clusters that are cross-referenced with types of crimes, peak crime hours, and victim and suspect analysis.

"The whole crux of the exercise was to get managers to realize that they had a resource that could provide them with information, and lots of it, to allow them to make informed rather than shoot-from-the-hip decisions," Stresak said.

All this is not to say that the CAU's job is anywhere near finished.

At this point, officers who want computer analyses submit requests for information, rather than being able to find the information themselves. Not all the divisions' Crime Analysis Details operate 24 hours a day. And many officers require more training to fully take advantage of the resources available to them.

But by the middle of next year, Stresak hopes that there will be computers on every officer's desk and that all officers will be learning how to make the most of their capabilities.

And eventually, in years to come, the process will be even more sophisticated, Stresak promises. Computer analysis will one day soon be Real Time Crime Analysis.

As officers are called to a crime scene, Stresak said, they will also be given all information about earlier crimes in the area, nearby locations of parolees with similar crime patterns or descriptions, likely escape routes and more.

"Criminals are more sophisticated," Stresak said.

And with the CAU, so is the LAPD.

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