Crime Prevention Unit Puts Technology On The Prowl
Their mascot is a jaguar, his jaws open and ready to “take a bite out of crime.”
This isn’t your dog in a trenchcoat kind of operation any more.
“The jaguar is at the top of the food chain, it’s very smart,” explained Sgt. Darren Harris, who is overseeing the transformation of a former clerical area of the Santa Clarita Valley Sheriff’s station into the Crime Prevention Unit, an information center that can quickly switch into an Emergency Operations Center during a crisis.
“A jaguar looks at its prey very closely and analyzes everything before going in,” he continued. “We study things, we analyze things, we look at things closely, then we pounce and put the criminal behind bars.”
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A quick tour of the new area reveals a user-friendly area for volunteers or visitors eager to learn about crime trends and how they can make their neighborhoods safer.
The city and surrounding area is divided up into eight zones – encompassing roughly the Gorman/Pyramid Lake area; Castaic and the developing Newhall Ranch area; Stevenson Ranch west of the I-5; Saugus; Valencia; Newhall, North Canyon Country/Jake’s Way and South Canyon Country/Sand Canyon/Fair Oaks Ranch area. Each zone has a leader assigned to oversee activity in their area and report to fellow deputies, as well as becoming the local expert when the public calls.
The leaders have lots of elbow room to do their analysis, with maps of each area mounted on the wall and white boards with information below in the flexible work area that can easily be used for briefings or group dissemination of information (such as a visiting homeowners association).
Next to that, each leader has a desk in a ‘bullpen’ where they can continue the information exchange or focus on their own analysis.
The Center is the first of its kind at the station level, Harris explained. Two other stations have already been out to look at it and get ideas.
By zeroing in on zone activities, the deputies are often able to identify a trend before it spreads and causes a much bigger problem.
This approach to crime prevention definitely got the attention of the City of Santa Clarita, which has always been concerned with the crime level remaining low.
Santa Clarita Valley Station Commander Captain Paul Becker met with city officials when the concept was just that – a dream.
“There’s no road map when you’re building the future,” Harris said.
“Considering that we’re pushing about 268 thousand (in population) now, we needed to break the valley and the city down into smaller zones so that we could look at crime incrementally so that we could move our resources more readily and impact the crime rate to drive it down to the lowest possible levels,” said Becker.
The SmartBoard is definitely the centerpiece of the glassed-in office emblazoned with the jaguar and the words “SCV CPU Crime Research Center.”
The City paid about $22,000 for the SmartBoard and auxiliary computers and software; additional funding was obtained from a JAG grant. In thanks, the wall opposite the screen holds a bright blue City sign thanking them for their support.
“It’s actually a recycled population sign,” Harris said.
The ESPN-Zone-sized big screen isn’t for football games - it’s for a bird’s-eye view of the 646 square mile area that falls under the jurisdiction of the Santa Clarita Valley station.
And it does everything you might imagine. This is a tool that will make deputies’ jobs safer, their efforts more efficient and will help everyone involved keep the crime rate low.
Using law enforcement programs overlaying the eight districts, Harris illustrated how icons indicating felons of all levels – from those complying with their parole requirements to those on the run, their last known addresses marked – offer instant information on the individuals; icons of various colors indicate incidents of crime, including homicides, assaults, thefts, sexual offenses and other criminal activity show how often deputies have responded to these problems, allowing investigators to discover patterns and team leaders to track problems.
The amazing part comes when they throw Google Earth into the mix, and the screen fills with a full-on view of someone’s backyard or a face in a crowd.
“This incorporates our crime data directly into the unit and automatically brings it up,” he explained. “A zone leader can go in and pick any given area in the community, pick a time period and offense and see how many of those incidents have occurred in that area. They can look for parolees or sex offenders, pretty much anything and it will bring the information up on the map.”
This kind of information is essential to tracking patterns in crime, such as a recent rash of thefts from cars parked at health clubs, or fires of suspicious origin.
A click on a colored dot can reveal a wealth of information, including the report number, when it was taken, who was arrested or suspect information that can all be captured in a snapshot and passed on to patrol deputies or investigators.
“If I click anywhere on this map, it will tell me what reporting district, the GPS, what zone it’s in, whether it’s city or county and which agency primarily patrols it,” Harris explained.
Just like on CSI, a handy stylus allows for markings, such as directional arrows, circles to capture information or to measure distance. The technology is used before teams of deputies go out for sweeps to double check any hazards they might face and, should something happen in the field, staff back in the CPU can bring up the area on the SmartBoard and recommend a plan of attack. Using the City’s pictometry program, deputies can measure distances instantly, such as the height of balconies or roofs, or how long a driveway is or how far away deputies have to maintain a safe distance under fire.
A microphone and camera can be used to capture any plans made or information recovered for debriefing purposes.
It can also be used to send information to cars in the field, a program that is expanding as budget allows.
“If I’m on YouTube, if I have a crime video, can capture it and print it, send it to units and tell the guys on the street there’s what we’re looking for,” Harris said. “We can email it to people or play it in briefing.”
“We can zoom in and out and literally fly around the community,” Harris said. It’s amatter of getting used to things.
Along with becoming an EOC during an emergency, the SmartBoard also holds the location of critical facilities – schools, Magic Mountain, the sheriff’s station, the hospital – that could be targeted by criminal activity or affected by a natural disaster, such as an earthquake. The visual can be the tool to get supplies or manpower to the right place, defend or evacuate a building or make a master plan for recovery.
Another almost scary capacity the board has came around not through law enforcement but a company wishing to capture a moment in time for posterity.
Harris showed a picture taken of a gathering after the defeat of the Vancouver Canucks hockey team, a gathering that started out peaceful but turned into a melee. The picture was taken by a company using megapixel technology, taking crowd shots to show off their new product. The picture of several thousand people gathered in the business district was posted on the internet by the company, who encouraged people to tag themselves and their friends.
“You might look at the crowd and think you could never identify anyone,” Harris said, touching the screen over one individual in the crowd.
In seconds, the camera zoomed in on that person, providing details and data, his face clear as day – his name and a link to his Facebook profile in a bubble next to his head.
In other words, an innocent “oh yeah, I know that guy” tag by a social network acquaintance could land a guy in jail. Or help the law find a dangerous suspect.
Harris said that the Sheriff’s department could use technology like this by using YouTube videos posted online – freezing a frame and sending it out throughout their network, asking if people can identify a face –the modern day equivalent of handing a lineup photo to a victim and asking for help.
One thing is for sure – the technology available to the public has to match that available to the deputies for everyone to do their job effectively.
People are already hooked in to the sheriff’s system via the Nixle alerts that go to computers and smartphones.
“As we move forward with the Nixle, as much of the information we can send is going to go directly out to the public and they can be our eyes and ears,” Harris said. “As for the public, a big part of what we’re encouraging is crime tip reporting.
All of the zone leaders in the CPU have other responsibilities; no new positions were created for this new endeavor. Some handle the volunteer program, or the youth athletic league, the Explorers or the Search and Rescue, among other programs.
“We’re doing this in a cost-effective way,” Harris said. “We’re shifting from community relations to crime prevention. What it means is that if we’re working closely in crime prevention and reaching out to the public, the community relations issue will take care of itself. That outreach to them will be what they want.”
Harris said that the unit welcomes groups who want to learn about their neighborhoods and activities, such as homeowners groups or neighborhood watch.
“We will walk them through here; we want them knowing that their sheriff has a good grasp on what’s going on,” he added. “We’re changing the concept of how we manage Neighborhood Watch. We found that Neighborhood Watch in the old sense, before technology and before mapping and the internet, doesn’t work as well. It’s still important for communities to get together and talk, but we found it was more effective, resources,-wise, to focus on getting information out on the large scale.”