Blue Line

News
Community Policing: There’s an app for that


May 1, 2015
By Bernardin

by Kevin Bernardin, Blake Chersinoff and Valerie Spicer

Technology such as in-car computers, digital radios, DNA evidence, CAD dispatching, COMPSTAT and social media are radically changing how police operate. More recently, predictive-policing, body-worn cameras and unmanned aerial drones are shaping policing’s near future.

This presents a major challenge for community policing, specifically in how these technologies are and will be used to reduce crime and increase community engagement.

The Vancouver Police Department (VPD) is an early adopter of using technology to assist with community policing functions. Over the years, the VPD has utilized a wide-array of technology and innovation to assist in preventing crime. Their effective use has put the VPD at the forefront of reducing crime to historically low-levels and addressing problems that impact community perceptions of safety.

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{Community policing technology}

In the early ’90s, the VPD loaded Casio pocket computers with the publicly available CPIC registry of stolen vehicle licence plates. With this information, community policing volunteers on foot or patrolling in vehicles or bicycles queried licence plates in search of stolen autos.

Since 1994 VPD Citizen’s Crime Watch volunteers are credited with removing more than 4,500 stolen vehicles from city streets. This has tremendously reduced the likelihood that these vehicles will continue to be used to commit crime.

When the Casio pocket computers evolved into the faster PalmPilots, which were made obsolete with the introduction of smartphones and apps, the VPD was quick to react. As a result, the Stolen Auto Recovery (SAR) app was created for the iOS platform and made available on the App Store.

The VPD also runs a comprehensive program through volunteer engagement. It targets high-risk areas where pedestrians and vehicles are more likely to be involved in accidents and was run using a pen and paper approach. A Speed Watch app was designed to take the program to the next level, allowing volunteers to “tap” the speeds and vehicle types into the app. This data is then collected in a manner that can easily be shared with the Insurance Corporation of BC (ICBC) and the VPD Traffic Section.

In 2013, the app was created to engage all Vancouver citizens, not just community policing volunteers. It provides a user-friendly method to record the details of personal possessions by enabling users to log serial numbers, descriptions and pictures, which are then e-mailed to them for their records. Should the items go missing or be stolen, the app user would have a safe record to forward to police and insurance companies, and to assist in returning found property to rightful owners.

{Intelligence-led community policing patrols}

In the spring of 2014, the opportunity to create a new crime prevention app was brainstormed by VPD sergeants Kevin Bernardin and Valerie Spicer and Cst. Blake Chersinoff.

Early development of the app relied heavily on Spicer’s work as a post-doctoral fellow at the Institute for Canadian Urban Research Studies at Simon Fraser University, where she conducts multi-disciplinary research in collaboration with experts in technology.

Bernardin provided his experience as the community policing services unit sergeant, along with his vision and leadership in creating the Stolen Auto Recovery, Speed Watch and Log It or Lose It apps.

As a previous community policing volunteer and new member of the neighbourhood patrol team, Chersinoff brought volunteer experience and the ability to integrate the app for use by community policing volunteers.

{Community Patrol app}

Bernardin, Spicer and Chersinoff envisioned a patrol app for volunteers. This idea was born out of the rudimentary nature of community-based patrols. Historically, volunteers would report their findings manually in log books, which were filled and often stored away, never to be looked at again.

Chersinoff led the design by first obtaining a donation from the Vancouver Police Foundation [VPF].

The goal of the app is to change how data is collected, stored and analyzed. From a volunteer foot patrol perspective the physical patrol actions have not changed, but the means of capturing information have radically improved. Volunteers now record what they do on patrol with their iPad or iPhone, in an attractive user-friendly app, through pictures, reports and GPS coordinates.

{How it works}

The app starts by collecting a volunteer’s log-on information and mode of transportation when they being their patrol.

Volunteers can look for various incidents to record along their route. For example, they may come across an inappropriately discarded needle in a park. They can tap a `needle’ button, which records the location, time and number of needles located, and then sends an e-mail to the 311 Contact Centre (the City of Vancouver’s reporting service) so the situation can be properly resolved. The app also records incidents of busking without a street entertainment permit, abandoned cars, illegal garbage dump sites and mischief, to name but a few, all with the tap of a button.

The app combats graffiti in an innovative way. While on patrol, volunteers are able to bring up the `graffiti’ function, which enables them to take a photo of the graffiti and forward it to 311 to request removal by a contractor.

The process is very user friendly: the app takes care of recording the time, date, location and details of the volunteer from their sign-on profile. At the end of shift when the user logs off, a PDF is sent to the volunteer coordinator and the information is uploaded into a database for further analytical use.

The app improves a long-standing partnership between the VPD and ICBC on crime prevention notices. In the past, community volunteers placed a notice on the windshield of vehicles whose drivers left valuables in plain view inside their parked cars. The notices are intended to educate motorists that thieves looking for a quick smash and grab routinely target these unattended items.

With the app, volunteers can record what is left in plain view, be it sporting goods, change, bags or electronics. This provides the police and ICBC with detailed information that can direct media campaigns to help reduce theft from autos.

{Counting the good}

While deciding on the functions of the Patrol app, it was determined that most of the inputs collected by volunteers were negative in nature. In essence, they were instructed to go out and look for things that were ‘wrong’ with their communities.

Ultimately, this could lead to a bias, confirming the volunteers’ thoughts that the neighbourhood was riddled with crime and disorder. To counter this, a positive contact feature was developed. This feature counts the number of times volunteers made a positive influence on someone. Now, handing out crime brochures and community policing stickers, giving directions or talking with someone in a park can be tracked.

{Compstat for community policing}

The Patrol app incorporates the newest available Geographical Information Systems (GIS) technology to capture, collect, manage and analyze data on spatial maps. This offers a visual projection of what is occurring where and with what frequency. GIS allows the creation of heat-density maps to show hot spots of activity.

When recording the volunteer’s observations, the app simultaneously geo-tags the latitude and longitude of the incident locations and the GPS route of the patrol. This allows for the recording of volunteer routes and distance travelled along with the various inputs.

This mapping feature essentially creates a “Compstat for community policing” with various disorder issues placed on a map, providing the ability to determine where hot spots are while re-allocating patrols to match identified crime trends.

The recording of volunteer routes also assists coordinators in distributing patrols evenly in their communities. If the routes showed a density in a particular area, the coordinator could ask that volunteers go to other areas to spread out the patrols.

{The future}

The app may eventually enable volunteers to patrol areas identified by intelligence-led crime hot spots.

Currently, the VPD is developing a predictive-policing platform called GeoDash, which allows officers in the field to have access to hot spot queries. Data will be uploaded from incoming police reports three times a day.

Initial discussions suggest that a portion of the data, not including actual addresses, will be made available to the public two to three days after the incident was reported.

Nonetheless, this presents an opportunity for volunteers to patrol their neighbourhoods in response to specific crime trends identified by the public GeoDash information.

The Compstat for community policing theme could be applied at the intersection of GeoDash and Patrol by allowing community volunteers to respond to areas where they will be most beneficial to creating a safe community.

{Acknowledgements}

The development of the Patrol app would not be possible without the diverse experience and hard work of the software development team.

Dr. Herbert H. Tsang, project engineer 

Noah Budarf, software developer 

Braden Shewchuk, software developer 

Justin Song, software developer

Brian Song, software developer

Finally, the project would like to thank the Vancouver Police Foundation for its support and commitment to innovative community partnerships.

BIO

Contact blake.chersinoff@vpd.ca for more information.