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Crunching Data to Craft Anti-Crime Tactics; LAPD Division Analyzes Preceding 24 Hrs, Finds Trends

Crunching Data to Craft Anti-Crime Tactics;
LAPD Division Analyzes Preceding 24 Hrs, Find Trends and Responds Quickly.

By Andrew Blankstein, Los Angeles Times

In a year when the Los Angeles Police Department wants to cut serious crime by 20%, things haven't gotten off to an auspicious start in the Foothill Division.

Burglaries in the northeast San Fernando Valley patrol area soared 93% in January, while vehicle break-ins jumped 50% from last year. Overall property crime rose 21% in the 62-square-mile division.

"We got off to a horrible start," said Sgt. Jay Roberts. The situation in January was "out of control," he said.

But in a marked departure from past practice, Foothill cops didn't circle the wagons or blame their troubles on understaffing (about five patrol cars per shift covering an area larger than metropolitan Boston).

They got creative.

Led by Capt. Kirk J. Albanese, Foothill assigned a team of three officers -- including Roberts, Lt. Ernest Eskridge and Officer Mark Frederick -- to take an analytical approach to the crime numbers and incorporate the analysis into a daily crime-fighting strategy.

"To fight crime these days you can't have 15 cops sitting around covering the four winds," Albanese said. "We have a focused, serious approach to crime fighting that's as scientific as we can make it."

In the past, practice in Foothill had been to wait as long as two weeks to discuss crime trends. And Valley commanders have a monthly discussion about results of a special computer tracking system initiated in 2002 called Compstat.

In both instances, waiting for an overview rather than reacting immediately allowed criminals to claim more victims, Foothill officers said.

In mid-January, Assistant Chief George Gascon started daily conference calls with commanders of the four LAPD bureaus to discuss crime patterns citywide.

The 18 police divisions in turn stepped up their analyses. The Foothill team, which Gascon says has become one of the most innovative in the department, started daily crime briefings to determine the who, what, when, where and why of crime for the preceding 24 hours. Officers map the crime data and boil down their analysis to nuggets identifying 24-hour trends.

By the next day's roll call, the two-page report is in the hands of patrol officers, detectives and members of specialized units such as vice and narcotics.

At a recent strategy session, Frederick pointed to a map to show where street gang members were stealing cars and chopping them into parts.

In Arleta, gang members were stealing cars and using them to carry out additional crimes. In Sunland-Tujunga, officers reported cars being stolen primarily by drug addicts.

A favorite target has been the Toyota Camry, which in the Foothill Division is typically stolen on a Friday or Saturday between 4 and 6 p.m. And recently, the LAPD has been seeing thefts involving 1980s-era Chevy Camaros in the area, Frederick said.

The same stolen cars are used by thieves between 10 p.m. and 3 a.m. to travel to other areas, where they break into cars and steal property, Frederick said.

The challenge is to use the quick statistical analysis to guide crime fighting on the streets. With relatively few resources, Albanese said, the division is trying to create crime-fighting "generalists rather than specialists."

One way has been to break the tradition of assigning patrol officers exclusively in marked, black-and-white police cars. Now patrol officers are being deployed in plain clothes. Detectives are also encouraged to look outside their specialties.

On another occasion, the team used statistics to find a good location for a "bait car," a vehicle designed to attract thieves and record their actions. Over four days in March, officers caught 10 suspects, all with criminal records, and one man wanted for robbery.

As the daily thefts mounted in January, Albanese knew he had to change gears quickly to find an effective response.

Reasoning that 10% of all criminals commit 50% of crimes, Albanese directed division officers to inventory all people arrested for property crimes over the last two years.

"Are they on probation? Parole? Are there warrants? Are they a parolee at large?" Roberts said. Such strategies appear to be paying off.

Overall, Foothill Division officers contacted 3,400 people in February, almost double the field activity of 1,740 contacts in January.

The number of arrests increased by 10% in February compared with the same month last year. Arrests were down 21% in January compared with January 2003.

Crime trends have begun to improve too. The upswing in burglaries, which almost doubled in January in month-to-month comparisons, had decelerated to 20.4% over the entire first quarter of 2004.

The same held for vehicle breaks-ins -- up 50% in January compared with 23% for the year through March. Overall property crime for the quarter was up 11%, a significant improvement from January.

"The fact that some folks are going to jail is mildly interesting," Albanese said. "But our report card at the end of the day is to reduce crime."

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