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Chicago's Project CLEAR

Written by Ed Buice

A lot of law enforcement agencies talk about making the most of limited resources by using information technology to “work smarter, not harder.” The Chicago Police Department has developed a unique way of doing just that. It is known as Citizen and Law Enforcement Analysis and Reporting System, CLEAR.

Not only do crime stats bear proof that CPD crime-fighting efforts are becoming more effective, budget figures will show that the department is also becoming much more efficient.

Ellen Scrivner, deputy superintendent, Bureau of Administrative Services, said “CLEAR provides the capacity to blend community policing and intelligence-led policing. It takes the public safety mission to a new level and is a model for resolving questions that involve how to integrate successful community policing with intelligence driven crime fighting. With this model, law enforcement executives do not have to make a choice of one over the other...they can do both.”

CLEAR is described by the Chicago Police as “an enterprise-wide regional database designed to fundamentally change the way we conduct business and empower intelligence-driven crime fighting.” What that means in practice is that CLEAR gives front-line officers the information they need almost instantaneously.

Nearly every officer in the nation has felt the frustration of releasing a suspect after a field interrogation only to discover days, hours or perhaps moments later that they there was sufficient cause to arrest the person they questioned, if only the information had been available at the time. In too many instances the data has been in the files but has not been instantly retrievable.

The CLEAR database contains details on more than 10 million incidents. CPD Commander of Information Services Jonathan Lewin, who works in the Office of the Chief of Patrol, explains that because CLEAR uses a “relational” database, it can link information together from all sources including involved victims, offenders, witnesses, property, arrests, cases, crime scenes, and 911 calls.

“Data flow begins with the first call to 911 and progresses to the initial investigation conducted by the beat officer using a portable computer, to electronic approval of the case report by a field supervisor. Mug shots and fingerprints are collected electronically at the time of arrest. Information is immediately available to specialized units and detectives for in-depth investigation.”

According to CPD estimates, CLEAR has saved the department $15.1 million in streamlined workload and redeployments. Lewin said, “tasks that in the past took 1.2 officers to complete now take only one officer due to time savings.” The results also include increased accountability for police officers and managers, streamlined administrative functions, proactive resource allocation and better community involvement.

That CLEAR works is apparent in Chicago’s crime rates. Since 2002, when the department launched a series of violence reduction strategies, homicides in the city continue to experience a 32% downward trend and are now at a 40-year low. Chicago saw 699 homicides in 2002 and ended 2005 with 448 homicides. Total index crimes were down 44% from 1992 to 2005.

CLEAR can be accessed by all of the CPD’s 13,600 officers and by most of it’s 3,000 civilians, plus an ever-expanding base of users outside the Chicago Police. Currently, data is shared with almost 200 suburban agencies. Recently, the Cook County Sheriff’s Police Department awarded a $1 million grant to Chicago to expand CLEAR capabilities for outside agencies. In fact, the state of Illinois’ crime data system will be replaced by CLEAR, which will serve as the state police data warehouse.

On a typical day, 1,200 concurrent users will run more than 7,000 queries. In addition, information is being shared with residents to strengthen the police-community partnership. People no longer have to settle for vague generalities; they can know specifically what is going on in their neighborhoods.

In addition to CLEAR, CLEARPath is the Department’s public access Web component of CLEAR. Available at www.ChicagoPolice.org, this Web site allows members of the community to quickly and easily generate maps showing crime conditions in their neighborhoods, perform inquiries against vehicles to determine if a vehicle has been reported stolen, see photographs of offenders arrested and charged with patronizing prostitutes, see sex offenders, and receive e-mail news alerts, crime bulletins, and crime prevention tips. CLEARPath was recently selected as a semifinalist in the Innovations in American Government award from the Kennedy School at Harvard University.

Crimes that were unsolvable in the past are now being solved simply because officers can get mug shots, rap sheets, maps and other valuable information almost instantaneously—while it will still do some good.

Criminal activity can be searched by district, beat, street, or address. Suspect names can be compared to aliases, nicknames and even distinguishing physical characteristics, such as tattoos.

One incident cited as an example of CLEAR’s effectiveness involved a home invasion-style robbery. A victim overheard one suspect refer to another by nickname. That name was searched and several matches were found. Photos of the most likely offenders were generated and shown to the victims, who quickly identified the two men who had forced their way into the home. They were picked up and charged a short time later.

Lewin said “before CLEAR, officers had to make a request for photographs then drive to headquarters to pick them up or wait for them to arrive in the mail. This could take four days. CLEAR can make mug shots available in four seconds.

“Before CLEAR, in order to find a crime pattern, you might have to spend hours looking through paper reports in filing cabinets and attempting to make sense of the information. Before CLEAR, a crime might take weeks or months to solve because information was difficult to access. With CLEAR, crime can be solved at the speed of thought.”

CLEAR mapping can help officers anticipate the location of future problems, for example, those that might develop between gangs interested in the same piece of real estate. When gang members are interviewed by officers at those locations, their complete backgrounds are available including known associates, hangouts, arrest history and case disposition. Further, the interview is entered as a “contact card” and becomes part of the database.

“Before CLEAR criminal history information was stored in paper format and had to be retrieved manually when officers made a request by telephone. CLEAR provides these rap sheets in seconds. Maps are one of the most powerful ways to visualize information. In the past, officers would have to look through hundreds of paper reports and place pins on a wall map, which could take hours.

“With CLEAR, maps can be generated in seconds, and they provide much more usable information than was ever possible before—including adding community factors such as the location of schools and businesses and even aerial photographs.”

Before CLEAR, the primarily national model of success was the NYPD’s CompStat, which melds technology and accountability. Many departments around the nation have tried, with varying degrees of success, to emulate the New York experience. Apparently, some of those agencies have been less successful because they believed a “one-size-fits-all” approach will work. Or, perhaps some leaders tried to mandate from the top down that the agency would embrace the new way of doing things.

In fact, Chicago had a similar experience with a previous version of a data system known as CHRIS—Criminal History Records Information System. There was very little input from users and very little testing during its hurried development. It went over with a resounding thud.

Lewin said CLEAR had been so successful “because it was developed with extensive user input in a joint application development process. We used police officers to train their peers on the new systems. User interfaces were designed to resemble established forms and reports and the system was marketed internally with powerful anecdotes.” Now, refresher training is done at roll call and via the Web in addition to more formal classroom training sessions, which typically last at least a couple of days.

Additionally, the city of Chicago has a long-established willingness to fork over the time and money needed to develop new information management systems. So far, $40 million dollars has been invested in CLEAR. In 2001, Chicago entered into a $32 million partnership with the database giant Oracle.

The deal could have cost much more had not Oracle agreed to discount 180,000 consulting hours in exchange for shared ownership of the intellectual property. There is also a huge commitment of man hours needed to create and sustain such an endeavor. The department also has made sure that the managers in charge of the program day-to-day both believe in it and have the vision and expertise to make it happen.

Other Departments from Los Angeles to Washington DC have asked for more information about CLEAR. Site visits have been conducted for such countries as Mexico, Australia, Japan, Poland, and England, and cities including Indianapolis, Baltimore, Rockford, Minneapolis, Houston, Dallas, and St. Louis. The Dallas Police Department is modeling its crime-fighting strategies on Chicago’s, according to the Dallas Morning News. Some only want to glean from Chicago’s experiences while other agencies want to copy the software outright. A number of other agencies have requested the source code for CLEAR. Since CLEAR is a grant-funded application, it can be provided to other agencies but appropriate licensing, modifications and support issues would remain the responsibility of the requesting agency.

CompStat clearly works for the NYPD. Obviously, there is no magic bullet, but CLEAR clearly works in the Windy City.

Ed Buice has 20 years of journalism experience, six years as a full-time PIO, and now is a nationally known media relations trainer and consultant for law enforcement agencies across the country. He may be reached at www.edbuice.com.

Published in Law and Order, Jun 2006

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