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Nashville PD Makes the Data Sing

Written by Janet Dewey-Kollen

If you want to know how to make data sing, head to Music City, where the Metropolitan Nashville Police Department applies Data-Driven Approaches to Crime and Traffic Safety (DDACTS). Last year, this police department, along with six other law enforcement agencies, received an invitation to serve as a DDACTS demonstration site. DDACTS is spearheaded by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Assistance and National Institute of Justice.

While other law enforcement agencies may need to make operational changes to become a DDACTS site, Nashville did not. The management philosophy core to the DDACTS concept was already in place. “Our department supports the philosophy that traffic enforcement is law enforcement, as most of the criminal element is either a driver or a passenger in a motor vehicle,” said Nashville Chief Ronal Serpas. “Therefore, in addition to decreasing crime, you also have the multiple benefits of reducing vehicle crashes and fatalities.”
When Serpas learned what DDACTS was, he realized his department was already operating under a similar model using location-based data. “We were already gathering, analyzing and utilizing that data to effectively and efficiently deploy resources at the countywide level on a daily basis,” he said.

Because Nashville is a DDACTS site, law enforcement agencies across the nation have visited to observe the department’s data-driven enforcement process. The fact that other agencies are modeling their efforts after Nashville’s doesn’t surprise Kendell Poole, director of the Governor’s Highway Safety Office in Tennessee and board member of the Governors Highway Safety Association (a DDACTS partner). Serpas puts a lot of emphasis on studying the data, Poole says. Even before DDACTS, Nashville mapped crime and traffic incidents together to show that the high crime areas were the same areas as the high traffic violation areas.

When Serpas left the Washington State Patrol (WSP), he brought with him Accountability Driven Leadership (ADL)—a management philosophy he created and implemented within the WSP. ADL builds on the familiar CompStat process and is the analytical model used by the entire police department to deliver police services on a daily basis. While CompStat focuses “cops on dots,” Serpas explains that ADL focuses the entire police department on overall goal achievement.

A 29-year veteran of law enforcement with a doctorate in urban studies, Serpas has become known for using accountability measures. CompStat, ADL and DDACTS are all based on identifying a problem area using data and following up to ensure that police resources are dedicated to the proper locations, he said.

“The concept of data collection followed by meticulous analysis and deployment of resources based upon problematic areas is at the very core of location-based policing,” he described. “It is critical for the community to know that the police department is very focused and specific as to where resources are deployed. It’s critical for the community to know that daily decisions are based on data. We cannot afford to be random in our efforts,” he continued. “We must continually analyze current data and ensure that the line officers are aware of every specific crime instance within their area of responsibility. That is how we have the best probability of crime reduction in a specific area.”

Commanders are in touch with the notion of redirecting their efforts on a daily basis, and sometimes even hourly, depending on what’s going on in a particular area. South Precinct Commander Michael Alexander said, “We have to keep the agency on a mission relying on fresh and timely data so we can respond accordingly to attack a particular area and make it safer and better for the people of Nashville.”

The results of Nashville’s efforts have not been random. Last year, the overall crime rate was at the lowest it’s been in 23 years. Violent crimes were at their lowest since 1991, property crimes were at their lowest since 1990, and rapes were at their lowest since 1980. Also, motor vehicle thefts were at their lowest since 1985 and burglaries were at their lowest since 1968.

Traffic stats also demonstrate success. Fatal accidents went down from 77 in 2003 to 67 in 2008, and the number of persons killed went down from 82 to 72 during the same time. Furthermore, accidents with injury reports have fallen during each year from 2004 to 2008, and in August of last year, the number of accidents with injuries was lower than the same time in 2008.

Nashville’s Traffic Philosophy

Traditional policing agencies may shy away from traffic patrol or from forming traffic units, Alexander said, but Nashville makes traffic enforcement a priority. “The number of outstanding warrants and the number of drugs and weapons we seize as a result of traffic stops is amazing,” said Alexander, who started his career as a patrol officer in 1991.

Traffic safety is the main purpose of traffic stops. In 2008, 53 percent of the department’s 935 traffic stops led to officers issuing traffic warnings. According to Serpas, he and the leadership team focus their attention on professional and legal traffic stops to enhance police visibility, deter and detect criminal behavior, and attempt to alter driving behavior with the goal of reducing automobile accidents.

“It is the vehicle stops that matter, not the tickets issued,” Alexander added. “The ultimate goal is keeping people as safe as we possibly can on the streets—saving lives by telling people to slow down or wear their seat belts, or by increasing DUI arrests.” Nashville employs high-visibility law enforcement for crime prevention. “We would hope the criminal element, if they were planning to stop and rob a business, upon seeing those blue lights would go elsewhere,” he said.

Data Going Forward

In response to the police department’s recent successes, Alexander said, “we’re not satisfied yet.” He explained, “I think it’s a major success to be able to say we’ve had five consecutive years of crime reduction, and I would attribute a lot of that to data- driven policing.”

Neighborhood watch groups, up 13.75 percent in 2008 for a total of 423, have also been instrumental in making positive changes. In touch with the community, Nashville sends out daily e-mails to anyone who wants to know what happened in the precinct during the last three or four shifts. The e-mail, for example, might talk about significant arrests, robberies or burglaries, depending on what’s going on at that time.

“We get a lot of positive feedback from the community,” Alexander said, “so we make sure we’re communicating to them about our efforts.” In turn, he said, “We’ve seen a great response from citizens and business owners reaching back in a proactive manner, saying they want to work with us because we have the same goals. We want to work together to make Nashville better.”

While successes and crime reductions are discussed frequently in community meetings, Alexander said, “We always make sure we tell people, ‘If you’ve been a victim of crime, you likely have had a 100-percent increase in crime. You’re not going to be excited about me telling you robberies are down 20 percent.’ We have to realize that until every neighborhood and every person feels safe in Nashville, we still have a lot to do.” Community support is already good, but Alexander says it can always be better.

Getting Started

In speaking to police departments of all sizes, Alexander is often asked how other agencies can get started doing what Nashville does. Nashville did not need to purchase new technology to become a DDACTS site. Existing mapping software utilized by the department’s Strategic Development Division can capture multiple facets of data. To further analyze the data, precinct commanders plot incidents on maps to ensure that zone officers are aware of the most recent crimes in their areas of responsibility.

To implement a successful DDACTS model in any city, data collection and analysis are the starting points. Alexander said that data systems in Nashville are advanced, but small departments wouldn’t need advanced systems. He said small departments can plot crimes (personal crimes, property crimes, vehicle crimes) and traffic incidents on maps to identify where the hotspots are. Once they have been identified, leaders can deploy resources to these problem areas.

According to Alexander, even if police departments don’t have mapping or analysis technology, they can still learn the benefits of the DDACTS approach, which are plotting crimes and traffic crashes by category in certain locations and at certain times.

One of the main points he has tried to drive home with other agencies is that “You have to get an immediate handle on what crimes you’re having, where and when, and you’ve got to deploy your resources accordingly.” He adds, “We cannot just be random in our efforts.” The falling crime and fatal crash rates resulting from this agency’s efforts are clearly not random; in fact, they are sweet music to the ears of the Nashville community.

Rebecca Kanable is a freelance writer specializing in law enforcement topics. She can be reached at kanable@charter.net.
Janet Dewey-Kollen is a consultant and freelance writer focusing on traffic safety media, marketing and programming. A long-time traffic safety specialist, she is the former executive director of the Air Bag & Seat Belt Safety Campaign and MADD Louisiana. She can be reached at deweykollen@yahoo.com. Photos by Ernest Holiday.

Published in Law and Order, Feb 2010

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