GIS Solutions for Medium and Small Law-Enforcement Agencies

In the last decade, computer crime mapping has emerged as one of the most important innovations in American police work. Advances in computer technology and in the rapidly expanding field of Geographic Information Systems (GIS) have coincided with innovations in crime analysis, investigation, and crime prevention. GIS and mapping software, once available only to agencies possessing mainframe computers, can now be easily loaded on the laptops carried in patrol vehicles and therefore can be used by even small and budget-constrained police departments. The innovations demanded by community and problem-oriented policing require that departments incorporate a geographic, spatial, or local focus, and emphasize the importance of integrating crime mapping techniques into departmental management, analysis, and enforcement practices.

Although crime mapping has become the new “hot topic” in law-enforcement circles, there are several questions still being asked, among them the following: How can it be used to assist the police officer on the street to do his or her job better? What resources are available to small or medium agencies that once were available only through the high-priced records-management systems used by larger agencies? Who needs to be educated, and to what level, to anticipate the future information needs of law-enforcement agencies?

Municipalities across the country are now working on various stages of implementing GIS projects related to the engineering, planning, and zoning particulars as well as the general infrastructure of their own communities. Law-enforcement agencies can tap into the vast new resources of information now available to power such programs as Community Policing Beat Book – a free program funded by the National Institute for Justice (NIJ) – and provide a wealth of practical mapping information directly to the officer in the field. The availability of this new resource will enable the officer to have at his or her fingertips the GIS information needed not only for traditional crime mapping but also for emergency scene management and other purposes.

A Wealth of Helpful Data, and Easy to Use

The Community Policing Beat Book is an easy-to-use resource that gives an officer access to electronic maps that display an abundance of helpful data about the community, provides tools for recording and mapping various types of information, and facilitates simple search-and-query functions. These and other applications – which are designed for use either in the field on a laptop or in-car computer, or at the station – can be “personalized” by the officer for his or her own uses.

The most important operational question usually asked, of course, is this: What does a Geographic Information System offer to the first responding patrol officer? There are several answers to that question, among them the following:

Immediate access to mission-critical information – i.e., information that has been compiled by various governmental and quasi-governmental agencies, for a variety of different reasons relevant to their own organizational missions and responsibilities.

Municipal taxpayer information – usually collected by local assessors, and providing up-to-date information about the owner or owners of any particular building and/or any given parcel of land within the community, along with specific descriptive contact information about each, and almost any other information recorded on the tax rolls of any community.

Information related to easements for essential services such as power transmissions, water supply, telephone and data communications, and sanitary services; typically, such information is displayed in a visual format that makes it immediately helpful to the officer.

Imaging, either actual aerial photographs or scale drawings – these can be overlaid with geographic points of reference, the location of underground utilities, and even elevation contours to help the officer better visualize the terrain in the area. Starting with an aerial view of an entire community, the officer can “drill-down” to view a single parcel of property, or specify a given radius of properties from a central, definable point.

Other infrastructure information – e.g., building outlines, the location of roads and parking lots, fire roads, driveways, and even fences and storm drains.

Natural resources in the area–lakes, ponds, streams, wetlands, and forests all can be referenced, frequently with trails and fire-access roadways visible that usually are not included on average maps.

Alarm registrations – including information on the types of alarms, activation points, floor plans, and emergency contacts.

Vehicle information and dog-licensing and weapons-permits data and other information routinely collected within any municipality.

A Broad Spectrum of Potential Scenarios

The best perimeter positions for a bank-robbery response can be quickly coordinated through the use of GIS by viewing building plot plans toentify lines of sight, and interior floor plans toentify entrances and exits. Interior building plans can be easily accessed for critical tactical planning. Roadways and the surrounding terrain can be quickly viewed toentify potential avenues of escape and/or determine the best means of capture.

Another scenario develops when a simple motor vehicle accident causes the spill of toxic chemicals on the roadway. GIS technology can be used to instantlyentify all drainage avenues, waterways, and elevations within various distances from the crash site, assisting responding personnel to effectively contain potential sources of contamination and minimize environmental damage and/or to determine the size of an already contaminated water system.

Yet a third scenario would be followed if a child wanders into a wooded area and becomes lost. At the initial scene, the officer can use his or her vehicle as a hasty command post and access the geographic information system to view scalable aerial photographs showing all local structures and the local terrain as well as trails and other geographic points, thus narrowing the scope of the search and minimizing the amount of manpower likely to be required.

A mundane search for a barking dog at two o’clock in the morning also could be easily narrowed by accessing dog-licensing data to find information about the addresses of owners as well as the breed and sex of all of the registered canines in a tightly defined area.

Small to medium jurisdictions require a scale of implementation that can be successfully – i.e., affordably – supported and maintained. These jurisdictions differ from larger ones in many ways. The expectations of law-enforcement management, the nature of staffing, and the need for technical support may differ considerably. Developing the support network needed by smaller-jurisdiction crime analysts may be critical for long-term success, but does not have to be expensive. Frequently, the expertise needed for implementation and use of GIS information is already available in other departments of the same municipality that are using GIS data for other important tasks not directly related to law enforcement. The two-step solution here is first to determine what and how much GIS information is needed by the law-enforcement agency, and then to work in close coordination with the municipality’s other departments to harvest that data on a continuing basis for the benefit of the law-enforcement personnel.

Several GIS programs to help law-enforcement agencies and/or to assist in the training needed to develop and implement programs are available, free of charge, for those agencies willing to invest the time needed to develop their in-house expertise. The National Institute of Justice is the research and development agency of the U.S. Department of Justice. The National Law Enforcement and Corrections Technology Center (NLECTC) is a program of NIJ’s Office of Science and Technology. NLECTC currently offers funded training programs through its Crime Mapping and Analysis Program (NLETCT Rocky Mountain). Funded training also is available through the National Counterdrug Training Center in Indiantown Gap, Pa., and at Volk Field, Wis.

The Community Policing Beat Book was created using ESRI’s MapObjects, and its development was supported under an award from the National Institute of Justice of the Department of Justice.

Jay Kehoe

Jay Kehoe



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