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Guest Commentary: The Next Mayor’s Crime Prevention Plan

Cities around the country are using cameras and data analysis to solve and prevent crimes. Is there a candidate, a local resident wonders, who will do the same in Philly?

Guest Commentary: The Next Mayor’s Crime Prevention Plan

Cities around the country are using cameras and data analysis to solve and prevent crimes. Is there a candidate, a local resident wonders, who will do the same in Philly?

My house was broken into a few weeks ago. The assailant came through our kitchen window (unfortunately, the only one that was not sensored on our first floor), fished around for wallets and keys, and left 10 minutes later out the back door when the alarm sounded and we received a call from Ring for the police to come  —  at 5:30am. The police did not arrive until 8:45am. A police report and detective visit later, a few emails with footage from a neighbor’s security camera, followed by some unreturned calls and additional emails, and the case was apparently closed.

And then, three weeks later, the police called. They say they got the guy. The officer, clearly elated over the arrest, gave me a name and let me know that I’d be hearing from the District Attorney‘s office (although I should expect some delays).

While the officer did not divulge the tactics and strategies that went into making this arrest, I know that in the weeks it took to find this criminal, 10 more were unleashed. I know that members of the Philadelphia Police Department still use antiquated systems. And I am certain that there was not a coordinated effort using data and predicting policing methods, the type that are embraced by hundreds of cities across the country and around the world — including within the City of Philadelphia, once upon a time.

The years following the pandemic will be critical for the city, and strong leadership will be necessary to steer it toward a prosperous future. It is also going to require coordination amongst all of its leaders.

Philadelphia tried (and to a large extent, succeeded) in using data-centric crime prevention programs to decrease crime rates under the leadership of former Mayor Michael Nutter from 2008 to 2016. Unfortunately, Mayor Kenney seems to have ignored these programs since in office, despite rolling out a failed program known as Operation Pinpoint, and all but “threw up his hands” last summer when he said he would be “happy” when he’s no longer mayor.

In the weeks that followed the burglary, I have taken a “deep dive” [thanks ChatGPT] into the topics of urban safety and security, and a common theme is that cities that prioritize investing in training and sustainable technology are proven to reduce crime. These programs range in size and scale, but have been implemented in all types of capacities as close as Camden and Baltimore. The technology itself, has an interesting history dating back to the 90s and post 9/11 New York City, with the development of CompStat, and later, Domain Awareness Systems (DAS).

DAS systems were first developed in New York City in the 1990s, but expanded exponentially after 9/11 through a partnership with Microsoft that continues through today. The program has been so successful that it has been replicated in many cities through licensing agreements between technology companies like Microsoft licensing their software and governmental entities. One well-known example of this approach is the CitiStat program, which was developed in New York City in the 1990s and later implemented in Baltimore under the leadership of then-mayor Martin O’Malley. In fact, the former mayor of Baltimore, governor of Maryland, and 2016 presidential candidate wrote an entire book, Smarter Government, advocating for the use of data and technology to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of government services and decision-making. (You can also check out his website, particularly the chapter on A New Way of Policing.”)

DAS systems are widely implemented across the globe, ranging from large U.S. cities like New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, to small and mid-sized cities like Baltimore, New Orleans and Atlanta, to international cities such as London, Amsterdam and Singapore.

DAS Systems can take on a variety of forms, as well as different terminology, including “predictive policing” or “CrimeStat,” different names, such as Chicago’s “Strategic Decision Support Centers,” and different methodologies, such as aggregating data from diverse sources, such as 911 calls, security cameras, license plate readers, criminal records, public databases and social media to proactively address crime. According to ChatGPT, DAS systems have the same four common factors that contribute to their success.

They are:

    1. Collaboration between technology providers and law enforcement agencies.
    2. Robust data integration from diverse sources.
    3. The use of advanced analytics and artificial intelligence to enhance predictive capabilities.
    4. A commitment to addressing ethical concerns, such as privacy and civil liberties.

All of these factors are crucial to ensuring that DAS implementations are both effective and responsible. However, due to limited budgets, cities must balance their investments in data collection and analytics, hardware and equipment, and, most importantly, recruitment and training in order to implement and administer successful programs.

Crime prevention that works

One small but scalable program using technology to enhance public safety and reduce crime is Baltimore’s CitiWatch Community Partnership program. The program allows the public to register their camera and opt-in (if and when a criminal event occurs), to release their private surveillance footage. As the City of Baltimore website describes: “By registering any number of cameras oriented towards public right-of-way and retaining at least 48 hours of footage, participants can work collaboratively with public safety agencies and contribute to safer communities and an improved Baltimore.”

The Philly police have a similar voluntary program called SafeCam, but it’s unclear how successful that is. Setting aside concerns about privacy and other ethical concerns (which are critical), I believe that if this program had been effectively implemented in Philadelphia, the police could have caught the individual who burglarized my home within three hours instead of three weeks (and who knows, may even have served to deter the criminal altogether).

Of the mayoral candidates, Rebecca Rhynhart has gone the furthest to highlight the inefficiencies in the Philadelphia Police Department in the Review and Analysis of the Philadelphia Police Department and other Related Police Spending issued by her City Controller’s office in October 2022. However, given the proven success of data-driven crime prevention strategies and the dire state of crime in Philadelphia, I propose that each mayoral candidate present a comprehensive plan for a data-driven crime prevention program for the city.

The plan should clearly outline a comprehensive strategy for data extraction and analysis, execution, budget, schedule, performance indicators, qualifications statement, and crucially, examples of previous successful programs and capable staff to spearhead these initiatives. This proposal will offer valuable understanding of each candidate’s approach to public safety and their dedication to tackling the issues our communities face.

The next mayor of Philadelphia has a tough but exciting road ahead. The years following the pandemic will be critical for the city, and strong leadership will be necessary to steer it toward a prosperous future. It is also going to require coordination amongst all of its leaders. I hope everyone is up for the task.

Daniel Chertok is an attorney living in Philadelphia.

The Citizen welcomes guest commentary from community members who stipulate to the best of their ability that it is fact-based and non-defamatory.


chrisinphilly5448, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

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