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Cottage Grove cops look to predictive technology to curb crime

In an effort to stay ahead of criminals and to streamline data, the Cottage Grove Police Department is requesting nearly $50,000 in federal aid for equipment upgrades that would allow officers nearly instant access to data while patrolling the streets.

The department is seeking funds through a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration grant to migrate to a Data-Driven Approaches to Crime and Traffic Safety (DDACTS) model.

The model uses geo-mapping to identify areas with high incidences of crime and vehicle crashes, or hot spots, and employs targeted traffic enforcement strategies.

The grant, Cottage Grove police officer Matt Foucault said, is doled out at the state level, allowing each agency to decide how and where the grant money is allocated. Discovered over the summer, Foucault, who is assigned to the city’s traffic enforcement unit, said the window to submit applications for the federal grant closed in March. But after speaking with a department representative, who said funding was still available, the window was reopened for the month of September.

“The main objectives (are) to lower crime rates and lower traffic incidents in areas that have overlap,” Foucault explained. “It runs on predictability, which takes us from a reactive police department to a proactive one. We are able to put our resources where the calls are going to be.”

Launched in July 2008, the problem-solving approach to crime and crashes allows the officer the ability to think outside the box, Foucault said. With the majority of the grant dollars, the department wants to purchase a $23,050 license plate reader, which will be mounted in one squad car, and implement a $15,200 BAIR Analytics Software system to aid in tracking and storing police data.

Predictive analytics key

Preventing crimes and traffic violations may be in the near future with the BAIR Analytics Software system. The program uses predictive analysis to identify hot spots which allows law enforcement to station officers in troubled areas.

The BAIR system, which stands for Behavioral Analysis and Intelligence Resources, has a successful 20-year history in law enforcement and defense departments across the world.

Once implemented, the police department plans to integrate the BAIR system with the current record management system and import the last five years of data. After integration is complete, the system will identify three hot spots within the city, Foucault said, giving the department an initial game plan to combat crime and traffic violations.

“The data basically shows us where in the city the most crime occurs,” he said. “It shows us (reports of) stolen vehicles, missing persons, drivers with revoked or suspended licenses, persons with warrants, basically anything that we want to flag as a violation.”

The live, up-to-date software positions officers within the hot spots to try to prevent crime from occurring, an objective Foucault said proves how important technology is in law enforcement.

“This technology gives the officer the ability to think outside the box and formulate the best strategy to go out and make a difference.”

License plate reader ethics

An emerging piece of technology used in other Minnesota law enforcement agencies has gone virtually unnoticed until privacy issues were recently raised, prompting some to question whether license plate readers are too intrusive.

Half of the grant funds are proposed to be allocated toward outfitting a police squad with license plate reading technology, which includes mounting six cameras on various parts of the vehicle.

A key part of the debate over license plate readers is the length of time that law enforcement agencies can store plate tracking data.

Cottage Grove Police Capt. Pete Koerner said the city does not store data retrieved when an officer looks up a license plate. However, Koerner said, the look-up history is available through the Minnesota Department of Public Safety.

“On average, the officer runs about 100 plates per 12-hour shift,” he added.

Without a reader, Cottage Grove police officers have to manually enter plate numbers while on patrol. As the technology remains debated, Foucault said the readers will help local officers keep their hands on the wheel and eyes on the road.

The license plate reader proposed for the department is an Autovu Patroller equipped with on-board navigation and monitoring interface. It has the capability to read up to 5,000 plates per minute and can differentiate plates at speeds up to 200 mph.

The system is designed with a predetermined hot list, Foucault said, that automatically alerts the patrolling officer of a violation.

“I see no problem with these readers as long as there is a predetermined hot list the officer works from,” he said. “The hot list is updated regularly and is pushed out twice a day so the officer on duty is working with the most accurate information.”

In an effort to deter misuse, the Foucault said the department will draft a policy and procedure guide to working with the license plate reader system.

“I think the biggest thing the public should understand is, at face value, the plate number is not going to be mean anything (to the officer) unless it’s on the hot list,” he said. “The personal data (of the everyday driver) is not readily available to the officer.”

The reader scans every license plate it encounters, but unless it’s associated with the hot list, the officer never sees the plate or the information behind it. Only when a vehicle on the hot list triggers an alert does information become available to the officer.

Foucault said he recognizes the issues of driver privacy have been debated but said officers shouldn’t “just look somebody up because if you do there’s consequences,” adding that personal ethics is key.

The department submitted its application earlier this week and Foucault said he expects to be awarded the grant by the beginning of October.

“Without this grant, the feasibility to do something like this just isn’t there,” he added. “The grant money that’s available helps us take that extra step. In my generation of police work, we’re pulling away from a military style of policing and rethinking that maybe the business model isn’t all wrong. Now it’s all about figuring out how that works.”