Monday, March 18, 2013

The History of Crime Mapping and Its Use by American Police Departments


     In an article published in 2006 in the Alaska Justice Forum, Sharon Chamard discusses the history of crime mapping, the advantages and disadvantages of computerized crime mapping, and the decreasing number of police departments that are conducting crime mapping analysis.

     Crime mapping can trace its origins back to 1829 France, when Adriano Balbi and Andre Michel Guerry created maps that showed the relationship between education levels and violent crimes. By the mid-19th century that practice had made its way over to England and Wales, where the techniques was applied to other types of crimes. In the early 1900s, the University of Chicago started using the technique for various studies. The maps that were produced could be 70 feet in length and take many hours in meticulous work to color in areas or put thousands of dots representing points of interest. Crime mapping was not widely adopted until the late 1980s, when desktop computers became widely available to police departments.
     While computers have made the use of crime mapping easier and more widely adopted, there are still issues with it. Chamard cites the learning curve of mapping software, specifically ArcView and MapInfo as an issue, especially in departments that have a relatively low number of personnel. There are also issues of integrating crime mapping into the normal department routine. A third issue is that the majority of departments using the technology for crime mapping end up using the software to create pin maps and hot spot maps, both of which are at the low end of analysis. Analysis above these levels requires some knowledge of cartography and GIS, which the majority of police departments lack.
     The last issue Chamard examines is why a large number of departments stop using this technique. A study  by Chamard from 1997 to 1999 found that of 615 departments that reported using crime mapping, 242 had stopped using it by 1999. The study found that department size was the best predictor of discontinuance. Departments with less than 250 sworn officers were much more likely to discontinue crime mapping than departments with more than 250. Issues with crime mapping that were specifically stated ranged from software issues, issues obtaining current maps, and a lack of benefit using the technique.


     The most noticeable issue with Charmden's paper is that it does not go into detail on the utility of the technique. She cites issues that departments have had in implementing crime mapping with computers, which is almost a moot point considering the alternative of utilizing the technique without computers. She also discusses interesting studies showing that a large number of departments that have used crime mapping in the past have stopped. She lists various reasons why this is happening, but she never once goes into the effectiveness of the technique. Granted that this paper is not aimed at explaining the merits of crime mapping, but it would have been helpful, especially since she hints at its use if properly used.    
     Charmden's studies of why departments have stopped utilizing the technique present two problems with crime mapping. The first is that the benefits of the technique do not seem to be fully known. This can be attributed to the learning curve of the software and the technical expertise that most departments lack. Departments with more personnel have larger budgets, meaning of they do not directly hire someone with the expertise to use the software, they can at least afford to send interested personnel to classes, giving them the technical expertise. This would also allow deeper analysis past the pin maps and hot spot maps that are commonly created. By effectively utilizing deeper analysis, the ability for crime maps to eliminate uncertainty would increase, demonstrating their usefulness.
     The second issue with crime mapping is that it might not be applicable to all departments. While the technique can be applied to cities, the same might not be said for suburban and rural areas. These areas are normally larger, with more spread out crime. These departments are also typically smaller than city departments, meaning that their resources are more limited. With more limited resources and a less centralized area, crime mapping might not be as useful or needed as with urban departments.

Charmden, S. (2006). The History of Crime Mapping and Its Use by American Police Departments. Alaska Justice Forum, 23(4), 4-8, Retrieved from                       

1 comment:

  1. Ethan, I agree with your critique. A majority of the articles I came across discussed the history of policing and the changing approach. This was relevant to the implementation of computerized crime mapping, but it did not seem to link directly to the intelligence community. There also seemed to be a limited number of articles discussing how to actually apply this method. I feel that it could be useful to identify interests to the intelligence community, such as "hot spots" not necessarily related to crime.