California Attorney General Kamala Harris wants the state’s police departments to talk to each other.
That is, she wants them to exchange crime data and information about parolees as part of a broad effort to create a statewide electronic network. Such a system would pump local police intelligence into the attorney general’s office. In turn, the state’s top lawyer would distribute research on how officers can better police their streets, as well as details on international gangs operating here.
Harris and several Southern California police executives unveiled the first piece of the network last week. It is called the Community Based Information System and is run by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and linked in with 23 other police, school and housing agencies.
The system is advertised as a tool to put thefts and assaults into context for officers. Put simply, it adds demographic data to crime maps, showing neighborhoods’ racial makeup and where residents are more likely struggling to pay their bills.
Police departments have been exchanging incident data through systems like CompStat for more than a decade.
This network differs in the diversity of data it pulls together, said Lt. Cheryl Newman-Tarwater, who oversees the new system for the Los Angeles County sheriff.
The existing systems “address everything that’s going on as far as crime and crime trends,” Newman-Tarwater said. “But they don’t bring in unemployment factors and (high school) dropout rates.”
In the months before Harris took office, her transition team made the creation of a statewide police network a priority. Harris decided that the Community Based Information System should be the model. Newman-Tarwater said Los Angeles Sheriff Lee Baca conceived of adding socioeconomic information to the usual mix of violent and property crime numbers in 2007 after reading a report on gang violence by Connie Rice, a civil rights advocate and a director of the nonprofit advocacy group Advancement Project.
Officers don’t need a spreadsheet to know their neighborhoods. This information can come from walking the streets, talking with residents and business owners – what has come to be known as “community policing.”
However, even best practices have limitations.
In the past, officers might have a short list of community organizations to direct someone struggling with drug addiction, Newman-Tarwater said. With this system, they have information about every aid group in California.
The sheriff’s department contracted last year with Healthy City, an Advancement Project subsidiary, to connect law enforcement with reams of data on employment, housing and public health across California. On the other end of the system, police and sheriff departments in Orange and Los Angeles counties upload their daily crime reports.
The merged data allows officers to track crimes beyond their own city limits, potentially finding social causes for an increase in violence, said Shum Preston, a spokesman for the attorney general’s office. Ideally, the system would also identify activity among international gangs operating here, which would draw investigative help from the state.
Data analysis, particularly crime mapping, has become hugely popular with law enforcement. Devotion to number crunching is increasing as departments lose funding and must decide how to allocate their resources.