A Byte Out of Crime
Mapping Software Helps Officers Put Pieces Together

by ELIZABETH DOUGLASS , TIMES STAFF WRITER

Monday February 16, 1998

DATELINE: SAN BERNARDINO

At the San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department, McGruff the crime dog may soon have to add a computer, mapping software and satellite positioning system to his arsenal of crime-fighting equipment.

That's because taking a bite out of crime these days sometimes involves high-tech tools in addition to standard police work.

Already, patrol car video cameras, infrared night goggles, fingerprint machines and computerized mug shot albums are being used.

But the hot technology now is crime-mapping software, and in that growing field, the San Bernardino Sheriff's Department is emerging as one of the more aggressive adopters of the rapidly developing technology.

The law enforcement agency has embarked on an ambitious expansion of technology that can help identify crime patterns, organize reports, provide information to deputies in the field and adjust staffing needs.

"They're going to be very cutting-edge pretty soon," said Nancy La Vigne, director of the Crime Mapping Research Center, a new agency within the Justice Department. "They're very lucky because they have a lot of resources."

So far, in San Bernardino and elsewhere, crime analysis is the most popular use for the mapping system.

Instead of the tedious process of poking color-coded pins into wall maps, crime analysts using the software can click a few computer buttons and create a custom map in seconds.

Bolstering these efforts is a string of new federal grants designed to find the best uses for mapping software and make it available to police departments large and small.

Mapping software maker Environmental Systems Research Institute Inc. of Redlands received $519,000 in grant money to create a uniform mapping package that could be easily adopted by all sorts of agencies.

Many police agencies are already using their own mapping systems, including the Los Angeles, Redlands, Salinas, Riverside and Sacramento police departments, but all of those agencies are also helping ESRI create the new mapping package.

San Bernardino is part of that team, but the Sheriff's Department is involved in an elaborate tech upgrade on its own.

Part of that enthusiasm is born of necessity. With 300 patrol cars, it's tough to cover San Bernardino County, with its 23 jurisdictions that range from rural desert to dense city, from mountains to the Colorado River.

County officials believe they can bridge that gap with technology.

The Sheriff's Department has ordered 50 touch-screen computers for its patrol cars to give officers instant access to maps and other data. They hope to eventually outfit all 300 cars. They are awaiting funds to install satellite positioning equipment that will allow them to automatically map the location of patrol cars throughout their shifts.

Eventually, officials hope to create an Internet site that will allow the public to search for general crime statistics by neighborhood.

"In general, in the past there wasn't a lot of support for technology," said Timothy Miller, manager of the technical services division in the department. "But for the first time, we really have buy-in on how it helps the cop on the beat and how this helps us catch crooks."

The software technology at the heart of it all is called GIS, for geographic information system. GIS is widely used by governments and companies because it allows them to present complex data in one map that might otherwise be lost in mountains of paper.

Fire departments, for example, can use GIS software to map out hydrant locations and provide details about water pressure at each site, or to pinpoint hazardous waste sites.

In law enforcement, GIS is used in crime analysis. Color-coded dots or other icons--a syringe for narcotics, a gun for weapons--are displayed on a computer map at the location where a crime occurred.

Crime analysts can create custom maps by changing the variables to find patterns in the time of day, type of weapon, kind of crime or modus operandi.

"You can look at reports all day and never make the connections, but when you map the data and make it a picture, things just pop out at you," Miller said. "We want to be able to say to the officers, 'These burglaries are every Wednesday night from 10 p.m. to 12 a.m., and they're going block-by-block.' "

Indeed, a few years ago when faced with an unusual spike in burglaries in Fontana, a deputy noticed that half a dozen of the cases seemed similar.

After running the data through the mapping system, officers found 50 similar cases and cross-checked the locations with the home addresses of burglary parolees.

"There were enough bits and pieces of information--once they were correlated--to figure out who [the burglars] were," Miller said. "The deputies followed them right into a house and arrested them, and they confessed to about 35 burglaries."

The same comparisons might have been overwhelming with paper reports, Miller said.

"The idea of pin maps is very old, so everybody knows that it's useful . . . but it's all been manual," said Phoebe Kelsoe, manager of the crime analysis unit at the Riverside County Sheriff's Department and president of the Inland Empire Crime Analysts Assn. "GIS is an important new tool, and it's a time saver."

Kelsoe's department in Riverside uses a mix of different GIS mapping systems, each of them initially funded by government grants of ESRI.

Miller said he sees a future in which officers can view missing-persons pictures in the field or check a case history for previous episodes on their way to a domestic violence call.

"It's kind of fun for us, it's exciting," he said. "Some of these are pie-in-the-sky sorts of things, but they are not that far out there."

Copyright 1998 / The Los Angeles Times