An inside look at "hot spot policing"

10:58 PM, Feb 20, 2013   |    comments
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By Kay Quinn

ST. LOUIS (KSDK) - "Hot spot policing" is a term you've heard a lot since last August, when former SLU volleyball player Megan Boken was shot and killed in the Central West End. But the crime fighting approach did not start with Boken's death. The St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department has used it for years.

Inside a St. Louis Police Department conference room, 60 or more members of law enforcement meet face-to-face one morning a week to talk about crime.

"We made 51 bench warrant arrests, we found a gun last night right in our target area," reports Captain Daniel Howard, commander of the first district, during a recent meeting.

It's in this weekly meeting that patterns of crime become apparent. So-called hot spots are identified, and a plan of action is developed. Around the table, senior command: the captains of each city police district, homicide detectives, St. Louis Police Chief Sam Dotson and in chairs around the room, officers from probation and parole, the circuit and U.S. Attorney's Office, the DEA and ATF.

"Some of them recognize the names of individuals they've arrested previously," says Chief Dotson, "and know that they work on this specific block or they're from this neighborhood. It helps give perspective to everybody in the room."

On a big screen, what are called "information products," up-to-the-minute statistics marking crimes that have happened in the past week, the past month.

The meeting's called CompStat which stands for computer statistics. It's basically tackling crime by the numbers. A style of policing that came out of New York City in the mid-1990s.

"It's a science," Says Lieutenant Colonel Lawrence O'Toole, deputy chief of the Bureau of Community Policing. "It's not an exact science but it's a science and the technology available to us to help us drill down to where we can really have a positive influence on crime."

"We want to start re-educating everyone in the city. People are leaving iPads out computers and everything so we're going to keep sending flyers out or mass e-mailings," reports Captain William Swiderski, commander of the second district, during a recent meeting.

Specific strategies for cooling off hot spots are decided here. It could mean foot patrols, street check-points, door-to-door canvassing.

"Once you figure out that hot spot, it's the strategies within that hot spot you really try to look into," says Lt. Col. O'Toole. "See what one strategy is more effective than others, and then try to develop that strategy for where ever that crime is.

Compstat is designed to give the force a more efficient look at what crime-fighting strategies are working, and allows them to quickly change strategies if crime stats show it's needed. Managing crime this way is also designed to hold people from all areas of law enforcement and criminal justice accountable.

A probation and parole officer from the state of Missouri attends every week. Chris Cline is with the Missouri department of corrections.

"When our clients are discussed in these meetings and we can better tailor our supervision needs to help public safety in general," says Cline.

A lot of what's discussed here is sensitive and privileged information. And I was asked not to include names of suspects and some other references to hot spot strategies. But even senior commanders believe more transparency about how Compstat works is a good thing.

"The community, it's good for them to see how seriously we take this crime and what we try to do," says O'Toole.


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