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Futuristic Crime Fighting Fit for a Movie

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In Steven Spielberg’s sci-fi thriller “Minority Report,” clairvoyants known as “precogs” reveal specific crimes just as they’re about to happen. Futuristic police speed to the scene and intercept the perp before he can do his dirty work.

Contemporary cops have no such luxury. But New Castle County law enforcement has come up with the next best thing, a computer-based strategy for anticipating where and when certain types of crime are likely to occur. The year-old Targeted Analytical Policing System has triggered sizable decreases in major crimes countywide and sharp increases in drug investigations and seizures.

The new approach is the brainchild of Col. Elmer Setting, who installed TAPS soon after becoming acting chief of police in late 2012. (County council confirmed his appointment in February 2013.) A 25-year veteran and former special-operations commander for New Castle County, Setting believed the department needed to change its crime-fighting model. “We were doing it wrong. We had to get off the 911 treadmill,” he says. “We were getting straight A’s in response time to serious crimes [murder, rape, robbery, shootings], but an F for lesser crimes, such as kids drinking in the park. If you handle the quality-of-life problems, you’ll address major crime as well.”

The concept of setting a tone by focusing on lower-level crime was first articulated by a pair of social scientists in the early 1980s. Dubbed the Broken Windows theory, it’s been the subject of law-enforcement debate ever since. But Setting had a hunch—and he asked Mike Walsh, a retired sergeant who is now a civilian analyst for the department, to evaluate county data for nonviolent crimes, including drug dealing. The study showed that the areas in which they occurred spawned most of the serious crimes as well. When Walsh probed further with in-house software, he identified the days and time frames typically associated with the various crimes. 

Just like that, a new level of intelligence had emerged. Without hiring new officers, Setting added a fourth mobile enforcement team and scheduled the units to cover the hot spots, including Edgemoor Gardens, Sparrow Run and several neighborhoods along Del. 9 outside Wilmington during the targeted periods. He then took his case to the rank-and-file.

“The buy-in from the workforce was evident,” says Joseph Bryant, the county’s director of public safety. “You could see it was working.”

And it kept on working. For 2013, the total number of criminal incidents in New Castle County fell by 10 percent, with a substantial decline in shootings (47 percent), homicides (41 percent), and assaults, robberies and burglaries (each about 27 percent). Meanwhile, drug investigations spiked by 64 percent, with seizures (by weight) increasing for cocaine/crack (35 percent), prescription drugs (31 percent), heroin/opiates (270 percent) and methamphetamine (an eye-popping 1,440 percent). 

Even more impressive, the dramatic turnaround came without additional manpower or dollars, as an anticipated drop in 911 calls accompanied the shifting of some patrol officers into TAPS zones. The results have been verified by the national Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies and have attracted the University of Delaware’s Department of Sociology and Criminal Justice as a research and grant-writing partner. There’s even some anecdotal evidence that real estate values have nudged higher in TAPS neighborhoods. 

Most significantly, though, the strategy of reducing serious crimes by tackling lesser crimes was validated. “We send the message that nuisance crimes are not tolerated,” says Setting. “Otherwise, drinking on the corner at 7 a.m. becomes a burglary at 9 a.m.”

Indeed, nuisances often turn into major arrests. Setting cites a recent example of an Edgemoor man urinating on his lawn. A MET unit (a sergeant and five officers) spotted him and, soon after, discovered a stash of drugs and weapons. “The guy didn’t want to miss any business by going inside,” says Setting.

A native of Wilmington’s Forty Acres neighborhood, Setting graduated from the police academy in 1989 after four years in the U.S. Navy. Tom Gordon was New Castle County’s chief of police at the time, and he addressed Setting’s class, emphasizing the need for “community policing.” 

A quarter-century later, Gordon, in his third term as county executive, would appoint Setting to his old job. In between, Setting attended a session at the Senior Management Institute for Police that featured a case study of New York City Transit Police Chief William Bratton’s clamping down on subway turnstile “jumpers.” The current New York City police commissioner created a law-abiding transit system that led to the department’s national accreditation in the early 1990s. 

Setting says his thinking has been shaped by the shared perspective of Gordon and Bratton. In New Castle County, technology has made their strategy an idea whose time has come. The software that launched TAPS is now bolstered by an internal website and other tools that provide every member of the force and other police departments (Wilmington and Delaware State Police among them) with an overview of the county’s high-crime areas. Setting designated Capt. Wendi Feeser the department’s first technology/grants officer and relies on his executive officer, Lt. Pat Crowell, to “make sure everything works.”

“He’s an enlightened chief,” says Gordon of Setting. “He’s pushing the limits.”

Gordon made “predictive policing” a cornerstone of his 2012 campaign for county executive, and he has long backed technology investment and related training. With TAPS’ success, county decision-makers are of like mind in terms of fighting crime. “You need the support of the executive and [county] council,” says Bryant. “And Elmer’s leadership has taken things to another level. It’s spread throughout the entire public-safety department.”

Classified as a yeoman (administrative/intelligence officer) in the Navy, Setting could handle just about every function aboard a missile cruiser. As such, he helped keep the sea lanes open off the coast of Libya in the mid-1980s. Similarly, during his police career, he’s held most major commands, including patrol and mounted—even switching gears for a stint as chief of detectives. 

After a game-changing rookie season as chief, Setting finds no shortage of challenges and is intent on setting new goals and changing the department’s M.O. to suit them. One crime category that didn’t knuckle under to TAPS last year was theft, with low single-digit increases in both general and vehicle-theft percentages. Setting plans to reverse that in 2014. A newly created property-crime team within the patrol has been aligned with detectives, slowing the pace of such crime so far this year. 

Also new on the organizational chart is a special section within criminal investigations—this one with no regular caseload. “They’ll go wherever detectives think they should be deployed,” says Setting.

New Castle County’s is not the only nimble, well-informed police force, nor is its use of TAPS-like methodology unique, but it has established an identity beyond the state. Last year, Setting’s team visited the Tampa (Fla.) Police Department to compare procedures, and this October, they’ll be a presence at the International Association of Chiefs of Police annual conference in Orlando. 

Back home, Wilmington’s “intelligence-led policing” has a familiar ring. “We don’t have the same technology capability [as New Castle County], but it’s the same type of strategy,” says Wilmington Chief Bobby Cummings, a 29-year veteran who’s worked closely with Setting in and around the city. “We share information, come to each other’s meetings. Why should we set boundaries? The criminals certainly don’t.”

Indeed, criminals can be a surprisingly inventive bunch, which is why Setting and his team will continue to analyze and refine their approach. With the computer’s prescience and a serious work ethic, they hope to keep the odds tilting their way.

 

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