Police Officers’ View of Analytics

Nov 25, 2016

Police analytics has been gaining more and more attention (which means FrontLine readers will see more on this topic in future editions). When the Ottawa Police Services began looking into it, they identified some 150 police analytics centers in the United States alone. Accenture, in their look into police analytics wrote that “Forward-thinking police departments are now turning to analytics technologies to find quicker, smarter and more accurate means of analyzing data to better assess, predict and prevent criminal activity.”

The benefits of analytic systems have been talked about for years, with many senior police officers recognizing the value from an operational and management perspective. But how do frontline officers see analytics? What do they see as their value? To understand this, I talked to three frontline police officers from the Ottawa Police Services – Constable Lana Cameron, a patrol officer with 11 years in the Ottawa Police force (most of it working patrol); Constable Ian Matyas, a patrol officer with 12 years with the Ottawa Police Services; and Detective Jean-Luc Bonin, currently with missing persons who has spent 11 years with the Ottawa Police and three years before that with the Military Police.

Each of these officers has extensive frontline experience on patrol and also are familiar with and in some cases were involved in the Ottawa Police Services analytics initiative. For example, constable Cameron was part of a group that offered advice on the kinds of incidents (referred to as trigger calls) that frontline officers could use analytics support, and constable Matyas visited four platoons around North America to assess their analytics programs from the perspective of a frontline officer.

We asked the constables what analytics means to them and what their ideal analytics support system would mean to them.

Constable Lana Cameron – Patrol officer with 11 years with Ottawa Police Services

Constable Cameron sees many benefits for the frontline officer through analytics. “Having statistics and analytics is crucial for my job it tells me where to go,” she explains. Very importantly, having the right information at the right time is critical to the performance of her job. “Information is critical to doing my job,” she confirms, “but the idea is to have the right information at the right time; when I have been dispatched and am going to a call, I don’t have time to crack open a five-page report on that community.” Instead, the Constable is looking to analytics to provide targeted intelligence relevant to the call in question. This can best occur with an analytics team that provides support to the officer.

Targeted information such as the history of the suspect(s), what they look like, proclivities and background that can be found on social media – all of this can be critical for responding appropriately to a call, and an analytics team that can quickly find and provide such targeted information to the frontline officer can be a source of major support.

“It makes it easier to decide where I am going if I know that bad guy lives at that address – the information that social media can provide helps me in decision making, deciding what do we do next. A lot of our job is hectic and chaotic, we need structure, and I need information.”

Constable Cameron sees analytics as addressing a number of frontline policing issues largely from the ability to access and integrate information from a broad range of sources.

The concept of a fusion center, with information-sharing from different police centers throughout the region – such as access to traffic cameras (as is done in Calgary) and to social media – would provide frontline officers with current, timely, reliable information that is critical to the performance of their job.

So, access to information is crucial and, to Constable Cameron, an analytics initiative starts with accessing and integrating information that, previously, officers either couldn’t get or had problems getting. According to Cameron, analytics also means having someone who validates and vets the information – ensuring that it is reliable – and in some cases analyzing the information and providing insight, understanding the context for the information, and then providing this in a concise manner to the officer who is heading towards a call.

“I want to arrest bad guys, and quickly. The better information and more information we have, the easier it will be to do our job, it will make it easier for us to make decisions. I know there will be a benefit.”

Constable Ian Matyas – 12 years with Ottawa Police Services, a patrol officer

Constable Matyas sees analytics as a valuable support function for the frontline officer by providing targeted information. “I want the information that will keep us safe and help us get the guy quickly. Anything else is failure. The information has to be client-focused and provided on a timely basis. If the information isn’t sent to the NBT [the computer in the car] until or after we get to the call, it’s too late, it can be useless.”

With 12 years of experience, largely on patrol, Constable Matyas was clear on the kind of information that is needed when enroute to the call, at the scene, and once the scene is secured. The constable also sees a need for different delivery approaches – “safety stuff over the radio, and other stuff on a tablet/cell phone.”

The current system has lots of information coming up on the screen while enroute to the scene which, while being valuable, may be more data than is relevant at the time. Having the right information presented on a timely basis is key, and he sees this as an important role for a centralized unit to provide an analytics support function.

To highlight the need for analytics and broader information access, we can look at an example crime scene in which the felon has escaped in a vehicle. “Once the scene is secured,” says Cst Matyas, “we then start doing research in our car, which does not have access to social media such as facebook. We are all dealing with the same car [and restricted computer system], and because we are all harvesting it ourselves, we don’t have access to all the information. With a centralized analytics function, the name of the suspect and the [escape method] could be given to the analytics professional who could then do the necessary research using centralized databases as well as look at the suspected felon’s social media sites for any pictures of a car. This information could then be sent out quickly to all officers involved.”

Based on his knowledge of analytics, which is extensive given the four different platoons he visited to help the Ottawa Police Services develop their own analytics program, I asked Constable Matyas what he saw as the analytics dream from a frontline perspective. From his perspective, access to efficient analytics would mean “an officer who responds to a call does not have to worry about anything about going to that call as they will be given the right information to make the key decisions. The information will be presented in a way they can use it – when they need it how they need it. You will have an analytics center that connects different parts of the organization, has information from other agencies, intelligence that can help the frontline officer, but also it will prevent the officer from having to follow up on intelligence that the organization already has. For queries, instead of searching eight different databases, the organization will integrate them into one – making searching more effective. More effective use of social media by use of proper analytic software such as media sonar.

Cst Matyas also sees clear efficiencies in other areas, such as officers being able to more effectively write search warrants thanks to having centralized analytics support that can put together the key information needed for the warrants.

“Real time analysis using access to cameras all around the city,” is another key benefit to crime solving, he says. As examples, he says an analytics centre could tie in facial recognition software from images available from city cameras, and license plate readers could tie into red light cameras (as is currently being done in Memphis) to help find or tail a getaway car. “Analytics will allow us to be proactive by analyzing real data to provide reasoned assessments for where we should be.”

The bottom line for Constable Matyas is that, with analytics, police officers could approach the call safer. This comment was echoed in several interviews.

Detective Jean-Luc Bonin – 11 years with Ottawa police services, 3 years with military police

As frontline patrol officers, Constables Matyas and Cameron provide much insight into how analytics can help patrol officers heading out to a call or, for example, on a chase. The perspective from frontline officers involved in other aspects of police work is also important. For this, I listened to interesting perspective on the use of analytics for helping in missing persons investigations from Jean-Luc Bonin, a detective in the missing persons section.

Similar to other frontline officers, Detective Bonin drives the view that it is about access to information that has previously difficult to get, particularly in a timely manner. In missing persons, four hours can be the difference between a suicidal person being found dead or alive. Social media analysis (examining the missing person’s social media footprint for clues to where they could be), real time analysis of large volumes of information, IP addresses (where they had gone on the internet), phone numbers (who they had talked to), and link analysis (looking at connections the missing person has), are all important in the efforts to quickly locate a missing person.

When asked what the biggest contributions analytics would be to a detective in missing persons, he responded with the following benefits of analytics:

“Assist in real-time on background research to save time spent reading and sourcing.

“Assist in filtering data that is not relevant and not useful.

“Tasks that result from investigative work (large volumes of IP addresses, phone numbers, organizational or family charts, etc.) can be more efficiently done by an expert in that field.

“Assist in emergencies by having a research-based approach to make sure nothing gets missed.

“Allows me to concentrate on dealing with people, rather than computers and databases.”

Detective Bonin also sees value for  criminal investigations, warrants, and other police work. “I see it helping with open source stuff on the internet, and all the above. There’s a ton of information that we have to sift through. A great investigator these days is a good researcher, and uses that research to guide how they deal with people. Having a professional do the research for us is how we can make decent investigators excel in this day and age.”

It’s important to note that the officers serving on the frontline do a good job (public opinion of the Ottawa Police Services in terms of the job they do is very high as was noted in one of my previous columns) but as resources are continually stretched, law enforcement services must find more effective methods of getting the job done more quickly and more effectively. “Analytics is about helping people that are doing a good job, do an even better job and be more effective – it’s a force multiplier,” says Bonin.

He echoes the concerns about the need for integrating information, ensuring the quality of information used, and very importantly, having people who are skilled at filtering the information to provide the officers what they need in a timely manner.

“We can resolve this with analytics – the information is centralized – information is at the hands of the people who need it most, with a filtering process in place. When responding to a call, we have an overload of information. We have three to four screens of info coming to us, then updates related to the call itself. Trying to respond to the call while driving one handed and you are trying to sift through the information. But I need to know what kind of person they are, what they look like and are they arrestable, I really don’t need to know a lot of background at this point. This is about adjusting our protocol. I don’t want to be overloaded,” Bonin explains.

The importance of centralization of information that comes with an analytics initiative is not only key to efficiency but also to effectiveness. “We usually deal with the same people all the time, whether they’re victims, witnesses, accused of a crime, or suffering from a mental illness. Often times, other officers have used a particular approach. Sometimes the result could be good, as in better information being obtained, or a de-escalated person in crisis – or bad, such as an escalation or a trigger for someone to become uncooperative. Without doing the research ahead of time, we can’t know all the information that exists in our databases, video interviews, prior reports, and so on. Analytics on the front end will greatly improve how we approach people. In investigations, it means knowing how to really maximize our personal contact with these people to get to the truth as quickly as possible.”

Clearly, Detective Bonin equates a well formulated police analytics initiative with helping to identify the best way to respond to a call, but also predicting and mitigating risk before the call – something important to officer safety.  

Jonathan Calof is the Executive Editor at FrontLine Safety and Security magazine.