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IU Northwest, area police departments partner to create unprecedented data sharing initiative

By sharing information, agencies can work together for public safety in a way that has never been done before

Monday May 05, 2014


In 2012, Gary Police Chief Wade Ingram wanted to begin using crime data analysis to help identify patterns of activity in the city and tailor responses and deploy personnel accordingly. It was a practice he’d become accustomed to when he worked for the Chicago Police Department, but he didn’t have the technical skills or resources to begin the practice in Gary.

Indiana University Northwest’s Center for Urban and Regional Excellence, which works to engage the University and the community in partnerships that jointly formulate programs and policies to support thriving Northwest Indiana communities, identified the community’s need and engaged Ingram and Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice Joseph Ferrandino, PhD., in a discussion focused on collaboration.  Thus, a working relationship began that would soon change the way a growing number of law enforcement and first responders do their jobs in the entire region.

Word of the successful partnership grew, and soon, Ferrandino was busier than ever, doing crime mapping for a growing list of police chiefs who, like Ingram, wanted to use statistical analysis for more proactive policing, but lacked the resources to buy and use the tool effectively.

Ferrandino’s work with area police departments is one of the Center’s most significant success stories. The center works collaboratively with organizations in all sectors to address challenges and to jointly create solutions with those partners, on a variety of issues, including public safety. The partnership was so successful that it didn’t take long for the partners to realize that one man analyzing crime data for a fleet of departments just isn’t sustainable.

“It grew to the point where we had to make some decisions about the future of it,” Ferrandino said. “The best strategy is to have people at every department that actually learn how to do this.”

Ferrandino has been training analysts at the area departments so that statistical analysis of crime, not just for individual departments but also on a regional level, can carry on and grow.

“We went from us doing it for everybody to everybody doing it for themselves with our help,” he said. “This will be a more long-term sustainable initiative.”

Today, at least a dozen police chiefs and their department representatives are enthusiastically sitting around the same table where Ingram and Ferrandino first met, but not to clamor for more maps or demand more of Ferrandino’s expertise. Instead, they are shaking hands across the table and establishing a network that Ferrandino calls unprecedented – the first of its kind in the nation.

Now numbering 15 participating agencies and counting, the Northwest Indiana Public Safety Data Consortium as it is now named, is laying the groundwork for sharing data, ultimately to enhance public safety across the region. As the chiefs say, crime doesn’t know boundaries, and what happens in one community impacts its neighbors. Drawing on information from each other’s jurisdictions will heighten the impact of an already successful practice.

One obstacle is that a partnership of this scale requires a costly software subscription that alone could have squelched the initiative, until a major player stepped in to back the project financially.

NIPSCO saw the value in the initiative and provided a gift to the Center for Urban and Regional Excellence that will pay for all the departments to have an account for the next two years. In the meantime, additional funding sources can be sought to continue what is sure to make an impact across the entire region, not just individual jurisdictions.

Jim Miller, director, corporate security at NiSource, NIPSCO’s parent company, said the company is happy to support the effort.

“We rely on law enforcement a lot to help us get our job done,” Miller said. “We are happy to return the favor in this manner. Municipal budgets are tight and our ability to fund this helps them be able to use the data and participate. If we have more participation across more departments, it benefits all of us.”

Miller explained that joining the initiative and inputting its own data will help NIPSCO keep a more watchful eye on its own facilities from a security standpoint, including protecting its employees.

“The region is our employees’ workplace,” Miller said. “We work in every neighborhood in the region at all hours of the day and night. Whatever we can do to help make the region safer, makes our workplace safer.”

Ferrandino said that the more agencies that get on board with the initiative, especially those that can provide “back-end” information, or whose work would benefit from data sharing, like probation officers, prosecutors, and first responders, the better for all. Any agency that can provide information that can be useful for public safety is encouraged to contact Ferrandino and join the network.

Chief Greg Mance of the Griffith Police, is excited about the way the initiative adds a public outreach component to policing.

“I could post this weekly if I choose to and show 2,000 Facebook users a day,” he explained. “What that does for me is, I might not know that a new person just moved into a neighborhood but that entire block will know and they will call me and tell me, ‘Hey I just saw on the map that we had five burglaries in this area, that guy’s cousin just moved in.’ Now I have a lead that I didn’t before because I have outreach to the public.”

Another big benefit of data sharing across departments is the ability to take the information right to the front lines, putting the tool right in the hands of the officers that work the streets. They will be able to access information that can help them do their jobs right from their mobile device at all hours of the day.

“(The patrol officers) are important for what we are doing here,” Ingram said. “We can sit in this room all day long and draw up these maps, but we actually need the guy on the streets. We need these things to help him to his job.”

Robert Crecelius, an IU Northwest student in the Master of Public Affairs program who is also one of the newer recruits at the Portage Police Department, concurred.

“This is going to help me know where crime is coming from and be more effective in my policing tactics when I’m on the road,” he said. “If I can be more effective and efficient, that is only going to benefit my department and my community.”

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