Seattle police are set to launch a new crime center designed to see patterns in real time.
A 911 call comes in: A Seattle resident returns home from work to find the house burglarized.
Though 911 call-takers will take down a flood of information, it might be hours before patrol officers arrive, and even days before a detective reviews the incident.
In an effort to tackle crime while it’s happening, Seattle police on Wednesday launched the Real Time Crime Center, redeploying existing staff, said Chief Kathleen O’Toole.
In a room on the seventh floor of police headquarters, a team of crime analysts, information-technology experts and detectives will work to provide patrol officers with up-to-the-minute information about crimes in progress.
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Seattle will be joining other departments with such centers, including Fresno, Memphis and New York.
“We’re always chasing a pattern. We’re trying, now, to get ahead of that pattern,” said Mike Wagers, Seattle Police Department’s chief operating officer. “When we see a spike [in crime], we hope to provide information to the field to get ahead of a crime trend.”
Wagers said the center will use technology and crime analysis to help patrol officers and detectives find patterns and hot spots for anything from a Priority 1 call, which can include violent or gun-related crimes, to a Priority 3, which can include a report of a suspicious person, a missing car or other crimes not in progress.
Mayor Ed Murray toured the new center on Tuesday night, and said he believes it takes the department to the next level technologically. He commended the department for not just using the center to focus on high-priority violent crimes.
“When you’re a victim of a crime, it’s real for you.”
The hub of the center is a computer dashboard created by Brandon Bouier, a department geographical-information systems analyst.
The dashboard, which can be brought up by one of the center’s four computer terminals or blown up on a wall of TV sets in the room, breaks down the number of Priority 1, 2 and 3 calls officers are responding to and maps their locations. The dashboard will flag gun crimes and other priority calls, and can be used to list information that 911 dispatchers enter in real time.
Bouier said they can access police records back to January 2008, when the department started using its current records-management system, to analyze patterns.
“We can analyze historical data to see a trend. We can evaluate if this is part of a normal trend or an anomalous situation,” Bouier said, as he sat behind one of the center’s computer terminals on Tuesday. “By virtue of seeing all of this information at once, there is a way to tie things together.”
For example, in the case of a home burglary, police might learn it’s one of a handful in a several-mile radius. By pulling up 911 records and comparing notes on all of the burglaries, the center might find a tip about a possible suspect or a potential lead on a car seen in the area.
The commander of the center has the authority to dispatch extra officers to hot spots, as well as send officers to retrieve crucial video or audio evidence, or a witness’ photo of a suspicious person, Wagers said. Staffing will include at least two intelligence analysts and a captain, with room to grow. The center will be staffed most days and some nights into the wee hours.
Critics of such centers across the nation have cited concerns that police could use the quickly gathered information to arrest the wrong person.
In an interview with National Public Radio in 2011, for instance, Professor Stan Goldman at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles voiced concerns about authorities using the information to stop and search innocent people who happen to be in the highlighted neighborhoods.
“It may very well end up reducing crime to a certain degree,” he told the station. “The question is, at what cost, at what price?”
Wagers countered that Seattle police “are not profiling people here.”
He said the center is an extension of the department’s twice-monthly “SeaStat” meetings. There, department leaders gather with law enforcement across the region, as well as leaders from other city departments, to talk about crime patterns, trends and specific crimes.
The biggest difference, Wagers said, is that “SeaStat is strategic, this is tactical.”
With the help of a more than $411,000 U.S. Department of Justice grant, Seattle police plan to hire mathematicians, statisticians and other data-science experts to beef up the center, Wagers said.
“The team will be able to turn the reams of data into useful information,” Bouier added.
In Fresno, where police launched a center in July, police Capt. Dennis Bridges said, “We’re going to go where the crime is. We’re not going to target areas that don’t have crime problems.”
He credits the department’s center with solving top-priority crimes. That center is staffed by officers on light duty or who are retired, and only focuses on crimes involving guns, violence and major incidents in progress.
Fresno police rely heavily on the city’s traffic cameras, school cameras and surveillance cameras across the city to gather evidence at the center. In Seattle, though, the city’s use of surveillance cameras is restricted.
Note: This story was altered at 7 a.m. on Wednesday, Oct. 7, to correct one word in this quotation: “SeaStat is strategic, this is tactical.”