Suburban police use new high-tech, data-driven tools to fight crime

More data, GPS technology help suburban departments

Over one month in Elgin, police searched for a car thief with a brazen ritual.

The suspect stole four older models, hauling cars away from neighborhoods on the back of a tow truck.

Police decided to park a vehicle - outfitted with a GPS device - near Harvey and Hawkins streets last February. Within a day, the suspect took the bait.

The area wasn't a hunch. A software program spelled out the time-frame and location - down to a 500-foot box - ripe for another theft.

It's one of the examples of data-driven policing embraced by suburban departments and spurring tech suppliers to create new products designed to predict crime and prevent harm to cops.

Earlier this month, Schaumburg-based Motorola Solutions launched a cloud-based application that maps data from public and private sources.

One feature in the Intelligent Data Portal, or IDP, plots environmental hazards picked up from sensors worn by police or firefighters. The devices have popped up in squad cars to monitor radiation near highways and railroads as part of a state initiative. Schaumburg has six mounted in cars - an extra layer of protection, Sgt. John Nebl said.

Another IDP feature delivers a "risk profile" of a person associated with an address to mobile officers. Intrado Inc., a subsidiary of West Corp., with an office in Lisle, developed an algorithm that mines criminal records, Internet chatter and other data to churn out the profiles in real time.

Motorola executives say it's a tool that better prepares patrol officers for volatile emergencies like domestic calls.

But privacy advocates fear such proprietary algorithms lack transparency and can sweep up "bad data" - outdated or inaccurate information that shapes encounters between police and civilians.

"If they enter that situation with some premeditated notion about whether or not someone is a threat, it changes the dynamic of that situation," said Ed Yohnka, spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois. "Are they more hostile? Or are their weapons drawn? All of that is based on information that No. 1, may not be correct."

Its makers say, though, that IDP answers a call to curate data from agencies with different dispatching systems. Fire departments, for example, could join a "supergroup" ahead of a regional event such as a marathon and track, say, the capabilities of an on-the-go ambulance.

Kane County towns last fall linked up with Michigan-based New World Systems for a feature that lets police type in a name and see whether another department has made any informal contact with the person. Before, cops had to hit the phones.

"It is nice to just to have the information at your fingertips," Carpentersville Cmdr. Tim Bosshart said of the grant-funded technology.

In Elgin, the department started to experiment with the predictive policing software last year. The program produces new predictions each shift through a formula analyzing the times and locations of past crimes.

"It's blind to race. It's blind to gender," Deputy Chief Bill Wolf said. "It doesn't take anything like that into account."

Police also are looking into using software that lists previous offenders considered most likely to commit another crime in Elgin.

Whether the forecasts drive down crime is still unclear, Wolf said, but police can confirm instincts of where to direct resources and manpower.

"We definitely stress to our personnel and our supervisors this is just an additional tool," Wolf said. "Good, old-fashioned, common-sense police ingenuity has to be first and foremost."

  Intelligent Data Portal plots weather conditions, alerts and other information on computers or mobile devices. Bob Chwedyk/
  Tim Boyle, Motorola vice president of applications and product solutions, touts a new product crunching data for public safety agencies. Bob Chwedyk/
  "It's a constant learning process," Schaumburg officer Aumir Miranda says of advances in analytics. "You're constantly getting new equipment and tools to play with." George LeClaire/
  A sensor mounted in six of Schaumburg police squad cars can detect the presence of hazardous materials such as radiation as part of a state initiative. Joe Lewnard/
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