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January 05, 2004
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High-Tech Statistics, Mapping System Helps Mich. Police Solve, Prevent Crimes

By STEPHEN FRYE, The Daily Oakland Press (Pontiac, Michigan)

PONTIAC, Mich. -- Fighting crime no longer means simply responding quickly to a 9-1-1 call and trying to solve a case.

Often, the calls are not major incidents but rather are crimes such as larcenies or vandalism, and solving them is often difficult.

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But with the proper use of technology, preventing them is getting easier.

With reducing criminal activity as its goal, the Pontiac Police Department has gone high-tech.

Comstat is a computer statistics program that allows police to identify problem areas and crime trends. It has been highlighted in television shows after being credited with reducing crime in cities such as New York and New Orleans.

The head of each unit in the police department meets weekly to look at city maps projected on two computer screens in an upstairs office at the station. They discuss how previous actions have gone to address problem areas and how they plan how to handle new trends.

"In order to meet the basic mandate with the community, we''re making full use of cutting-edge technology," said Police Chief Rollie Gackstetter.

Pontiac is the first city in Oakland County to fully implement this program, said Jamie Hess, chief of CLEMIS, the county-led Courts and Law Enforcement Management Information System.

"Pontiac has taken it and really run with the ball," Hess said.

Police work traditionally has been a job that was reactive, hustling to get to scenes where the damage has already been done.

But Gackstetter''s goal is to make it more proactive, and now he has the technical support to assist with a plan that started years ago after hearing from residents about what they wanted.

Throughout his police career and in his past two years as chief, Gackstetter has promoted the idea of community policing. Six years ago, even, he said he wanted to give "the community and citizens the policing they want rather than what the department thinks they need."

The chief has walked through neighborhoods, going door-to-door to talk to residents about their concerns. The department''s Crime Area Target Team has held district meetings to hear from residents, and a citizens'' patrol has been used as the eyes and ears of the department.

Now, the 170-officer department is using the computer program to find out what the city needs, organizing the 71,000 annual calls for service it receives.

Comstat allows police to check a variety of occurrences, from high-profile specific crimes to traffic accidents to simple residential complaints. When an area has an increase in anything, police can respond quickly.

And then two weeks later, they can check it again to see if the numbers have dropped.

For instance, at a meeting last month, the chief quizzed his staff about what actions were being taken and why changes were evident concerning:

A rash of complaints in an area with several apartment complexes on the city''s northwest side. The concern was met with extra patrols from the CAT Team. It was believed that a small group of teens was responsible for the residents'' complaints.

A series of home larcenies that were assigned to detectives who believed they knew who played a role in the thefts. A man was jailed. The larcenies had stopped, but Gackstetter ordered the investigation of the suspects to continue.

For the period, the only major crimes were instances of criminal sexual contact, all involving family members. No action looking at a trend was ordered because they were all unrelated cases with individual investigations.

Reports of vandalism involved mostly domestic situations with ex-boyfriends or girlfriends, so officers decided to focus their energies on prevention efforts during the holiday shopping season. Mayor Willie Payne asked that police work to help protect seniors from thefts in their complexes.

Traffic officers who wanted to set up stings at Kennett and Stanley, where two accidents had been caused by people running a red light.

Gackstetter wanted a rash of nuisance complaints - more than a half dozen - along Huron west of the downtown Woodward Loop to be examined. He was concerned that nearby halfway houses might be a problem. They were not tied to a rise in reported crimes but the chief noted complaints had not been that high the previous month.

"It''s a tool that we need to help us ID problem areas," said Payne, a former police officer. "This helps us be proactive."

Gackstetter said tools such as Comstat help keep up the level of servicing, considering the department has 53 fewer officers than in 1973 and has seen a nearly 30 percent increase in calls for service during that time. Comstat, he said, provides accurate and timely information from the county CLEMIS and, by using crime-view mapping, it allows police to develop effective tactics to combat problems.

"We want to get to more core causes," he said. "Then we can deal with the problems on a long-term basis, going deeper into the problems."

It also allows police to more quickly respond to problems when a trend is discovered and, by watching follow-up calls, they know when relentless investigation is necessary. Commanders can now see the results on a map, and they can judge their officers'' work.

"It''s a good management tool," he said.

Advocates say Comstat allows for geographical responsibility for officers; helps units combine resources to address a particular problem, such as with prostitution stings; and inspires initiatives for officers who can more easily see problems.

And the program simply follows the idea of traditional community policing, listening to the residents who see problems.

"The two really go hand in hand," Gackstetter said.

So far, he said it''s been a success, part of an 8 percent drop in violent crime this year. And because the department already has been paying to be part of CLEMIS for seven years, the police budget has not changed.



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