Analytics and situational awareness: Where we are now and where we need to go

By Dale Peet

Traditionally, law enforcement’s discussion of situation awareness focused on scenarios similar to a barricaded gunman. It is a defined engagement with clear informational needs. However, to improve officer safety and prevent and deter crime, law enforcement requires ongoing, near real-time, mobile situational awareness capabilities.

Historically, the sheer amount of human resources, data sharing and technology required to create true situational awareness has impeded progress. Law enforcement is seeing a growing need to provide better information, from the command level to the officer on the street. Technology is playing more of a critical role in facilitating better assessment of the situation they are dealing with.

Technology has traditionally been used to capture incident information. There is a shift within law enforcement to use technology, specifically analytics, to provide better service and safer communities. At the same time, there is widespread reduction in resources, personnel and budgets. Analytics does more than create better situational awareness. It leads to cost savings through more effective allocation of resources.

For example, North Carolina Law Enforcement Automated Data Services (CJLEADS) is a database of criminal information that can be accessed via the web in seconds. CJLEADS integrates data found within the state’s various databases – including warrants, jail records, court records, prison records, probation and parole status, registered sex offenders, DMV, Wildlife and Concealed Handgun Permits – and provides up-to-date offender information, even on mobile devices.

Courts and law enforcement can save valuable time researching information and focus their efforts on more important public safety responsibilities. North Carolina estimated the value of intangible benefits for FY 2011-2012, based on actual usage of the application, at approximately $15.8 million. Future annual benefits are estimated to be approximately $21.7 million by the North Carolina office of the State Controller.

With potential savings like that, law enforcement leaders can make a powerful business case for analytics that not only improve officer safety, but are budget-friendly. However, other obstacles persist.

Effective data sharing is critical to better situational awareness, and while data sharing has improved since 9/11, we are still trying to overcome decades of an “information is power” mindset. Resistance to data sharing also comes from the fear of failing to stop an incident even though the information was seemingly available to do so.

Another roadblock to technology-driven situational awareness is simply generational. Older cops are not as comfortable with technology, while younger ones more easily adapt, use and trust the new tools that are available to them. Training is important.

The technology must be easy for an officer to use and make part of their routine. Now that mobile devices can access powerful Web-based analytics and reporting, this should become the norm.

Sharing data allows everyone to do a better job identifying criminal activity, and provides a clearer view of crime at the local, regional and national levels. All of us in law enforcement have a responsibility to share information, but we have a greater responsibility when we choose not to share.

As with any cutting-edge use of technology involving citizen data, it is important for everyone to understand that current policy and law must be followed, but also that new policies and legislation be created to keep up with the rapid advancement of capabilities.

What’s possible now, and beyond

Advice engines: An analytics-powered advice engine will provide the steps an officer should take to address different types of calls. For instance, if an officer is responding to a gang call, it might link to a gang investigator’s website or to pages with background on that gang. If a tanker truck overturns, the advice engine could provide information on the specific chemical, instead of the officer having to thumb through a hazardous material guide. It could provide reminders of relevant department policy. This capability is available now.

Geospatial intelligence: An officer driving through a neighborhood sees a moving map that tells them what crimes have occurred in that area, and is able to drill down into those reports. Officers historically work the same areas until they are reassigned, gaining substantial local knowledge. We need to automate the delivery of that information to someone new to that beat so they come in with a high level of knowledge, improving their situational awareness immediately instead of learning it the hard way.

Social media analytics: Geocoded tweets, and changes in the volume of chatter and sentiment around a certain topic or event, can indicate increased risk in a specific area. Not only does that improve the safety of the officers on site, it allows for better resource allocation.

Law enforcement has never had a better opportunity to improve situational awareness at all levels. Increasing use of analytics and mobile devices is putting valuable information in the hands of officers, when they need it. Data sharing is helping criminal justice professionals make better decisions about arrests, sentencing and probation/parole, but there is so much more that can be done. The ability to provide quality situational awareness to responding officers that may save that officer’s life and better protect the community is the ultimate goal.

Dale Peet is a 23-year veteran of the Michigan State Police and the retired commander of the Michigan Intelligence Operations Center, Michigan's largest and primary fusion center for homeland security. He now serves as a principal law enforcement consultant at SAS.

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