Cops and their toys

Computer and cooperation help SPD fight crime

Class action: Sacramento Police Department officials gather at the weekly InfoCOM meeting.

Class action: Sacramento Police Department officials gather at the weekly InfoCOM meeting.

The Sacramento Police Department is on the cutting edge of futuristic, high-tech crime fighting. That’s right, our very own River City this year implemented the same sort of computer technology that helped such vice-filled metropolises as New York City and New Orleans cut their homicide rates by almost 50 percent, as cops anticipate crimes before they happen like some kind of pistol-packing fortune tellers in blue.

So the SN&R sent me to learn more about this crime-stopping advance of the century. InfoCOM, developed with a $496,000 grant from the Office of Criminal Justice Planning, is California’s first foray into high-tech crime analysis. Sacramento’s experience could serve as the model for the rest of the state.

Lt. Steve Campas said Sacramento’s InfoCOM can generate computerized maps of the city faster than a speeding bullet and leap tall buildings with a single transmission of helicopter crime-scene surveillance. Then he invited me to experience InfoCOM’s crime-fighting power firsthand at the department’s next InfoCOM meeting.

The weekly meetings, called “Sector Snapshots,” focus on one of Sacramento’s six sectors. Campas meets me in the lobby and warns me to be quiet as we enter the conference room. As someone whose entire experience with the “boys in blue” consists of Hollywood detective flicks, the meeting is nothing less than surreal.

Uniformed officers, guns at their hips, gather around a table discussing an unsolved series of thefts in South Sacramento. A glowing screen projected on the wall displays InfoCOM’s data—a black-and-white map of city streets dotted with tiny blue car icons representing auto theft scenes.

The maps can be used to plot crime trends or to determine evacuation routes in the event of floods or other natural disasters. The maps help police determine which neighborhoods are vulnerable to crime so they can work with community members to form neighborhood watch teams or encourage better nighttime security.

It occurs to me that all of this could probably be achieved with a Thomas Guide map and a pen for a lot less than $496,000, but, hey, I’m no crime analyst. To help me understand the true advantages of the new system, I ask the lieutenant for some cool cop anecdotes in which the Sac P.D. utilizes high-tech InfoCOM sleuthing to get tough on crime.

He describes a “very recent situation” involving recurrent mini-mart robberies in South Sacramento. “The detective on the case had no leads. The suspect and vehicle reports had no identifying information.” The detective presented his dilemma at an InfoCOM meeting, and the police “developed a strategic plan using the news media and public support,” he says. “Within 24 hours, we had five crime alert tips. Within 48 hours, the suspect was in custody.”

Campas credits the quick capture with the public’s response and a local Shell Station’s security camera, which allowed the police to get a positive ID on the suspect. I am so caught up in the thrill of the manhunt that it takes me a minute to realize that this successful police story doesn’t seem to owe any success to the InfoCOM computer. The only connection seems to be that the decision to enlist public support was made at an InfoCOM meeting. Thinking I might have missed a vital connection, I flip to a clean sheet in my reporter’s notebook and vow to take better notes on the next example.

But Campas’ second story proves similarly beside the point. A recurrent burglary of construction sites in the Natomas area was curbed when police, while sitting very near to the InfoCOM screen (See the connection?), decided to urge the builders to install better fences and hire night security. This tandem effort by construction contractors and police solved the problem. Hmm. Still no mention of the computer as anything more than a wall decoration in the detective process. Maybe the Thomas Guide idea isn’t such a bad one.

By now it’s becoming clear to me that, while it’s handy and even cool—in a Robo-Cop kind of way—to have computerized cityscapes at your fingertips; the most valuable features of the InfoCOM system are the meetings that bring the sectors together.

Before InfoCOM’s implementation, sector captains worked independently to solve the problems in their area and competed with each other for a share of the budget. Now, however, Campas notes that the captains tend to work together and share their troops to tackle tough crime areas. Could it be that InfoCOM’s real crime-stopping power is Sesame Street-style cooperation? I smile at Campas and hastily scribble “Bert and Ernie” in my notebook.

Campas continues, “At the meetings, everybody’s on the same page. All of the resources in the Sacramento Police Department are represented.” The InfoCOM system “allows area captains to maximize the resources that are available in dealing with a particular problem.” With representatives from every office in the department gathering each week, solutions are quickly achieved.

“InfoCOM has allowed us to positively affect the rate of crime,” Campas concludes.

With that, I am ushered out of the conference room. As I make my way back to the office, I am comforted both by my return to (unarmed) civilian surroundings and by the knowledge that local police are practicing the fine art of cooperation. Computers may be the wave of the future, but the things we learn in kindergarten can still be the most useful.