How the 'safest' city does it

     When San Jose, California, Chief of Police Robert Davis looks back over his 27-year career in the city he calls home, he is awed by the changes.

     "The city's population is growing by 15 percent each year and we're still maintaining 1998 staffing levels," he says. "It's clear we have to employ technology to protect our community."

     Once a small Northern California farming community, San Jose now sits at the center of the high-tech industry in the United States, surrounded by the legendary technology giants; listing 25 companies with 1,000 employees or more, including the headquarters of Adobe Systems, BEA Systems, Cisco and eBay, as well as major facilities for Flextronics, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Hitachi and Lockheed Martin.

     San Jose, now the 10th largest city in America with an estimated population approaching 1 million residents, has received the "Safest Big City in America" acclamation for the last five consecutive years from Morgan Quitno Press, the publishing company that ranks cities and states based on crime figures from the FBI.

     To help maintain this prestigious ranking, Davis is somewhat of a technology hound, and relies on the newest applications available to law enforcement to enhance the capabilities of the department.

     Sometimes it's the easy solutions that bring the most cost-effective results. For example, when Davis realized that the newly installed CAD system had the capability for Automatic Vehicle Location (AVL), but turning it on crashed the system due to the large bandwidth requirements to run the application, he simply put out an RFP to rent bandwidth.

     Instead of redesigning a whole new system for AVL, San Jose PD now rents all the bandwidth they need and the system works perfectly.

     "So now we know where every vehicle is, and instead of sending the assigned car to a 911 call, we send the closest one," Davis says. "We also know where the first responding officer's backup unit is, and we can let them know immediately."

     The strategy of seeking the most cost-effective solution seems to come easily to Davis. Crime mapping is one way an agency looks at allocating resources. San Jose enjoys the lowest crime rate of any major city. Still, Davis says keeping a handle on trouble spots and certain kinds of illegal activity is crucial to holding that coveted title.

     "We are constantly monitoring our crime patterns to head off any foothold criminals may get in a certain area," Davis explains. "We respond to the slightest increase in violent crime of course, but also try to discourage the car thieves and drug dealers as well as gang activity."

     But the agency's existing crime mapping system was cumbersome and not user-friendly. It was not available to the public, and was not expandable for the future uses he had in mind. Again, Davis looked for the most cost-effective way to improve on this valuable tool.

     Crime Reports, headquartered in Salt Lake City, Utah, had the answer Davis sought. And it would cost the city just $199 a month.

     "Crime Reports provides us with a service that we control, we can change, and we can use internally as well as make information available to the public in real time or with a few hours delay." Davis says. "They provide the hardware, software, updates, and we have a multifaceted crime mapping application that is very cost effective."

     "By participating in, the San Jose Police Department is demonstrating its commitment to service and safety by making crime information available to the citizens of San Jose," Greg Whisenant, co-founder and CEO of Public Engines, which makes the application, says. "Chief Davis and his staff are forward-looking, providing timely, location-specific information to the public when some law enforcement agencies are reluctant to do so," he says.

     San Jose PD expressed an early interest in, allowing department officials to become one of 30 Foundation Partners nationwide that provide guidance and input into the direction of the service. Upcoming new features driven by the Foundation Partners include:

  • Analytics and dashboards for public use;
  • Video integration, allowing law enforcement to attach digital video to specific crimes when it is available;
  • SMS alerting, allowing the San Jose PD to send alerts to specific neighborhoods if specifically requested by the department; and
  • Neighborhood watch tools, where residents of specific neighborhoods can contribute information.

     Whisenant says the service is affordable to all, ($199 per month for cities with populations over 50,000 and $99 for others) and is currently working with San Jose and surrounding jurisdictions to broaden the reporting to the entire region.

     "This service levels the playing field for all agencies," Whisenant says. "Everyone can have access to the information they need instantly without the cost of installing, and maintaining hardware and software systems."

     Crime Reports is currently used by 150 agencies, and Whisenant estimates that number will rise to 1,000 by the end of 2008.

Outsourcing sensitive crime data?

     Deciding whether or not to outsource an agency's sensitive data is always a major concern when choosing vendors and solutions. The knee-jerk reaction is to say, "NO, we'll keep our data in house and control it."

     Since Davis was looking for a solution to make certain information available to the public and keep other information on sensitive investigations in-house, Crime Reports offered a simple answer.

     Davis explains the logic behind the service.

     "They only have the information we send them," he says. "If anyone hacked into their system, the only information they would get is information we wanted to be public anyway. There is no way to go back and query our internal servers by hacking into Crime Reports' computers."

     Whisenant concurs. "The way the service is designed, we work with an agency to evaluate the information they want to make public. In this case, 911 calls involving only those relating to a crime report (excluding sensitive information like investigative leads, hoaxes and requests for information) are entered into the data stream we receive."

     So, if a burglary is reported at 123 Main Street, a resident logging onto the crime map would see how many burglaries occurred on the 100 block of Main Street, but the actual address would not be posted. If someone wanted to look up all crimes in his or her local area, one can do that by putting in a measured radius. If he or she wanted to see where all the car thefts occurred in the entire city, that information can be singled out.

Free community alerting

     Beyond active research by community members, Crime Reports also offers an alerting feature at no cost to subscribers. This can be used in two unique ways: first to alert residents to a specific crime in their area in real time, (example: bank robbery at 456 Broadway, suspects at large) and second, to alert subscribers of a dangerous or hazardous situation (example: water main break on Front Street, excessive flooding).

     Davis encourages all residents to take advantage of this unique service. "If you are concerned at all about where crime is occurring in your neighborhood, this will let you know in a timely manner."

The future of real-time crime mapping

     Davis has more plans for the technology. "We have the information at our fingertips now. The next step is getting it to officers in the field in real time, and transmitting video in real time to assist in the apprehension of suspects before they get too far from the crime scene."

     With the implementation of TicketWorks electronic ticketing solution from New Jersey-based 3i Infotech, traffic stops and field reports can be entered instantly and the information made available as soon as San Jose PD desires.

     "The San Jose Police Department can now spend more time on Vehicle Code Enforcement, as opposed to citation entry and correction," says Davis. "The TicketWorks solution dramatically decreases the number of errors and avoids the need to enter data into two systems. The technology will also provide us with the ability to access citation data during critical investigations," Davis adds. "Easy-to-use automated entry forms to the officers will be updated periodically whenever there are changes in city and state traffic ordinances."

     "TicketWorks not only reduces time spent on entering data and making corrections to citations on the handheld devices, but it also provides a complete back-end system that allows individual officers to track their own tickets, and supervisors to better manage citywide allocation of resources," Ramesh Narayanaswamy, 3i Infotech's president for Government Services says in a recent statement. "Officers can focus on serving and protecting the community."

     Davis says every piece of information has the potential to solve a major crime, whether it's from a traffic stop, resident tip or just an officer's observation. "That information doesn't do anybody any good if it's not available in a timely manner," he says.

     "Our strategy to provide our first responders and investigators with a clear picture of an incident — including the location of available units, recent citation information and historical crime data — is going to keep San Jose the safest big city in America," Davis concludes. "We want to give our officers in the field the edge on criminals, by instantly knowing their whereabouts and containing an incident to an immediate area. But ultimately, real-time information in the field will enhance officer safety and effectiveness."

     Linda Spagnoli is a well-known law enforcement advocate in the areas of communication, child safety, officer safety and sex-offender tracking. Her focus is on interagency data-sharing, emergency communications and media relations.