Chicago Crime: Lies, damned lies, and statistics

For the last few months, I have been working on a project using Chicago's crime statistics.  Its great the city has finally published them and made them available to the public.  (I was pushing for this many years ago, when the city would only share 30 days of crime data.)

I want to highlight a couple of issues with the crime dataset.  First, the city deliberately obfuscates some of the published data for issues of public safety.  An example of this is adding noise to locations of crime.  Second, there is a strong bias by the police for under reporting crime.  This is a response to the CompStat philosophy of emphasizing quantitative progress on crime.  Police have an incentive to underreport crimes in order to make themselves look good.  This is a natural response (and expected response) to an emphasis on these quantitative measures.  In many ways, its analogous to how teachers focus on teaching students to do well on standardized tests.

There are several recent stories that led me to discuss this issue.  The first is an in-depth investigation by Chicago magazine on crime statistics.  The article also relies on the study by Chicago's Office of Inspector General.  It appears to apply a very careful analysis to the crime statistics and incorporates a number of cases to illustrate how crime statistics are manipulated.  Here are some snippets from the article:

Chicago Magazine conducted a 12-month examination of the Chicago Police Department’s crime statistics going back several years, poring through public and internal police records and interviewing crime victims, criminologists, and police sources of various ranks. We identified 10 people, including Groves, who were beaten, burned, suffocated, or shot to death in 2013 and whose cases were reclassified as death investigations, downgraded to more minor crimes, or even closed as noncriminal incidents—all for illogical or, at best, unclear reasons.

This troubling practice goes far beyond murders, documents and interviews reveal. Chicago found dozens of other crimes, including serious felonies such as robberies, burglaries, and assaults, that were misclassified, downgraded to wrist-slap offenses, or made to vanish altogether.

Take “index crimes”: the eight violent and property crimes that virtually all U.S. cities supply to the Federal Bureau of Investigation for its Uniform Crime Report. According to police figures, the number of these crimes plunged by 56 percent citywide from 2010 to 2013—an average of nearly 19 percent per year—a reduction that borders on the miraculous. To put these numbers in perspective: From 1993, when index crimes peaked, to 2010, the last full year under McCarthy’s predecessor, Jody Weis, the average annual decline was less than 4 percent.

This dramatic crime reduction has been happening even as the department has been bleeding officers. (A recent Tribune analysis listed 7,078 beat cops on the streets, 10 percent fewer than in 2011.) Given these facts, the crime reduction “makes no sense,” says one veteran sergeant. “And it makes absolutely no sense that people believe it. Yet people believe it.”

The city’s inspector general, Joseph Ferguson, may not. Chicago has learned that his office has questioned the accuracy of the police department’s crime statistics. A spokeswoman confirmed that the office recently finalized an audit of the police department’s 2012 crime data—though only for assault-related crimes so far—“to determine if CPD accurately classified [these categories of] crimes under its written guidelines and if it reported related crime statistics correctly.” (The audit found, among other things, that the department undercounted aggravated assaults and batteries by more than 24 percent, based on the sample cases reviewed.) 

All of this creative number crunching, former police officials say, is a radical departure from past practices. Veteran members of the force blame McCarthy. Muddling murder statistics “benefits no one but the superintendent,” says the retired high-level detective. “Not the citizens, not the investigators. It only benefits him.”

 The second article I want to mention (for those of you still with me) is a blog post by Corey Yung.  Corey explains how the manipulation of crime statistics is hardly unique to Chicago. 

In the mid-1990′s, the Philadelphia Inquirer caught the local police gaming the rape statistics sent to the FBI. The city police would regularly classify rape complaints as “investigate persons” without further inquiry. As a result, the city was able to announce lower violent crime rates based upon faulty data. In 2005, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch uncovered similar practices in St. Louis. There, the police used informal memos instead of written complaints to record allegations of rape. These memos were not counted in official crime numbers. The police even pressured victims to sign waiver forms releasing police from any obligation to further investigate their complaints. In 2009, the Times-Picayune and Baltimore Sun found large-scale rape data manipulation in New Orleans and Baltimore. The Baltimore police took advantage of the “unfounded” rule wherein police do not have to count criminal complaints deemed false. However, the department regularly used the category with little or no investigation performed. New Orleans police repeatedly downgraded offenses to crimes that were not counted in official stats.  According to the investigation, over half of New Orleans rape complaints were designated as “Signal 21″ which was a non-criminal category where rape cases went to die. 



Red Light Cameras Watching You?

Crime shows often show how traffic cameras can be used by the police or bad guys.  But for those of us who studied these systems, we knew this was a myth.  That these systems were not tied directly into other camera systems, but were used to generate tickets typically only viewed by private vendors.  While police could get footage, it was typically after that fact if there was a violation.  In fact, the description of red light cameras by the Chicago, makes it appear this way.

While we knew this was how the system worked, I often warned others that this would change over time.  As technology improved and became cheaper, there would be a push to improving the cameras and integrating them into other systems.

Ten years later, this has happened in Chicago.  The red light cameras are now able to be used by the police as part of their camera surveillance network.  The story at DNAinfo contains the details: 

Xerox Local Solutions now runs the city's red-light camera system.  "Redflex is out of the picture and [everything is] under the control of Xerox," Chicago Department of Transportation spokesman Pete Scales said Friday. "Their contract is over and we have no financial relationship with Redflex now."

 . . .

Now that Xerox has complete control of the system, crews are converting the old hardware to their new Drivesafe camera technology at the remaining 174 intersections with cameras.

The Redflex system utilized magnetic inductive wiring installed below the surface of the pavement to sense vehicles and trigger the cameras when a car entered the intersection after the signal turned red. This proved to be problematic if the pavement became damaged, forcing the city to temporarily take a red-light camera out of service until repairs could be made.

Xerox's Drivesafe system uses radar, which the company says will allow the system to track a vehicle's position, speed and direction for much longer distances than previously. "The new DriveSafe red-light enforcement camera system being deployed in Chicago utilizes a small tracking radar for detecting vehicles," said Todd Jackson, director of technology for Xerox State and Local Solutions. "As a result it is less invasive, requires less infrastructure and the systems remain operable during street projects."

CDOT Deputy Director David Zavattero believes the Xerox technology is a step up from Redflex's system."With the magnetic induction loops, any disruption to the pavement — potholes, cracks — the loops get damaged," explains Zavattero. "The radar technology is mounted on a pole. It's non-intrusive and off the road which is preferable to us."

The new Xerox system have an added benefit to the city that allows the 352 cameras to be used by the police department; the Xerox cameras can pan 360 degrees and stream live video back to police. The new cameras increase the number of surveillance cameras to 24,500, officials said.

. . .

"Redflex has been embroiled in a multi-state bribery scandal so it's probably wise to part ways with them, but Xerox has had issues if its own," says the NMA's John Bowman. "In Baltimore, a city audit found that the Xerox-managed speed camera program had error rates in excess of 10 percent. That's roughly 70,000 faulty tickets a year."




Drop in Red Light Camera Tickets

DNAinfo has a story on the drop of red light tickets:

For the fifth year in a row, Chicago's red-light camera program has seen a significant decline in the number of tickets issued.  The city’s 384 red-light cameras issued 579,460 tickets last year — 32,619 fewer than in 2012, representing a 5 percent decline, according to data obtained from the city's Finance Department.

In fact, the data shows red-light camera tickets have been falling steadily since 2009, when 722,935 tickets were issued, a record at the time after a dramatic expansion of the program a year earlier. The 140,000-ticket drop represents a 20 percent decline since the peak five years ago.

Fewer tickets issued means a potential drop in fine revenue. At $100 a ticket, that translates to an estimated $3.2 million drop in fines issued between 2012 and 2013 and a $14.3 million drop in total fines issued since 2009. Nevertheless, Chicago's red-light camera system remains the largest automated traffic camera enforcement system in the U.S., with nearly 4.7 million red-light tickets and a half-billion dollars in fines collected since its inception in 2003.


Its easy to see this drop in this graph:


 So why are tickets going down?  While there is a trend towards driving less, this doesn't explain it all.  The curious part for me is the drop from 2010 to 2011.  What happened then that created such a drop.  I need to look more, but I think in 2010 there was a lot of coverage in the media on red light cameras.  It could be that by 2011, drivers were aware of cameras and making sure they didn't get ticketed.  The curious question is how this has affected accidents and whether our streets are safer.  Keep reading here, I have some answers to those questions coming in the next few weeks.  


Cameras at the Tollway

Jon Hilkevitch over at the Tribune has a nice rundown on the cameras on the tollway this winter:

For background, the Illinois tollway has more than 1,000 cameras over its 296 mile system. The cameras are largely there to photograph cars with unpaid tolls in I-PASS Lanes. Electronic toll collection has been in place since 2005. There are 4.9 million active I-PASS transponders.  

The tollway raised a total of $997 million in 2013 from Collections via cash, I-PASS and violation recoverypayments.  On an average day, the tollway system handles 2.2 million toll transactions. 

The cameras snap about 20 to 25 pictures per vehicle of all traffic going through the open road tolls.  The images are then erased for vehicles with I-PASS transponders and violations are recorded for those that don't. 

According to the article, the violation rate stands at 2% and that results in 1.3 million violations last year.  This brought in $283 million in fines for 2013.  

Take this with a grain of salt, because I couldn't get the numbers to workout at all.  If the violation rate is 2% and there was 1.3 million violations last year, this would mean there was 65 million total transactions in 2013 (1.3m * 50).  But this number doesn't square with what the tollway reports as the number of average daily transactions (2.2m per day).  Shrugging my shoulders, who knows, but it does give us a little insight into the operation of the tollways. 






New Surveillance Video Shows Chicago Train Derailment

ABC News has the video of the CTA derailment at O'Hare.  It appears the video was not an official release.  This is problematic.

One of the persistent concerns with Chicago's surveillance network of 25,000 cameras is the potential misuse.  An example is individual camera operators deciding what footage to release.  In this case, the release doesn't appear malicious by targeting a specific individual/group.  Nevertheless, it is a cause for concern that someone was able to do this.  I will be curious if the person will be identified and held accountable.  As the news story reports, the footage is currently all over YouTube and LiveLeak.



Surveillance at CivicLab

For anyone in the city on Thursday evening, I will be giving a presentation on surveillance in Chicago at CivicLab


Homicide Statistics 2003 to 2013 for Chicago

For a presentation I am giving soon, I compiled an updated list of homicide statistics. (I often focus on homicide because its often the first statistic the police and public use to think about crime.)  You can see it doesn't look like much has changed over the past 10 years.  Taking much broader look across time and other categories of crime, USA Today quotes Papachristos on how Chicago is at its lowest rate of crime in 40 years.  His paper is published here




New CTA buses have more security cameras

From the Chicago Tribune:

The 300 new 40-foot buses to be manufactured by Nova Bus under a $148 million contract will each be outfitted with 10 security cameras, plus a fortified safety barrier to protect drivers from unruly riders, the CTA said.

The current 40-foot buses in the CTA fleet have four to seven cameras, transit officials said, adding that the 60-foot buses with the articulated midsection have more cameras.  The CTA is testing a prototype of the Nova buses, which have a price tag of almost a half-million dollars each. 
"Cameras do serve a deterrent purpose. If certain people know cameras are there, they are less likely to commit crimes,'' CTA spokesman Brian Steele said. "The new camera coverage will also play a big investigative role in helping us step up efforts to capture criminals.''
The cameras will store images for possible downloading at a later time, officials said. The CTA is working to secure funding for a project to provide real-time surveillance camera feeds from buses and trains to the transit agency's control center and to the Chicago Police Department. No launch date has been set for the live monitoring on buses and trains.
More cameras on the bus and the potential for real time feeds.  It looks like this will add thousands more cameras to Chicago's surveillance network.  The new cameras are much higher resolution and will also be useful for advanced analytics, such as facial recognition.  

Mapping Chicago's Cameras

I wanted to share the work of Aaron Moore, a Depaul Geography student.  I shared with him the location of Chicago's police cameras and he developed a series of maps that highlight how the cameras fit into the fabric of the city.  Here are two of the maps he did:

Chicago Camera Pod Density  Chicago Cameras Residential Zone



Heat List Strategy

Chicago's police department has a history of using innovative techniques.  The most recent is known as the heat list.  The heat list is a list of people likely to commit crimes based on a computer analysis.  The police department then personally visits each of the people and lets them know essentially they are watching and they need to mend their ways.  This approach is proactive, but also troubling for some people, because it judges people based on past behavior.  In some ways, this is reminescent of old cop shows where the police first go after the most hardened criminals first when trying to find a suspect.

Here are some more details, they are from the Tribune and Verge

The CPD has received $2 million in grants from the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) to support these high tech policing efforts.

The heat list has 400 members, but only about 60 have been personally visited.  The police department has published their directive regarding the heat list.

Police officials said they came up with a heat list of about 420 names through a computer analysis, weighting numerous risk factors to come up with a ranking of people who in the worst cases were more than 500 times more likely than average to be involved in violence. Among the factors are the extent of a person's rap sheet, his or her parole or warrant status, any weapons or drug arrests, his or her acquaintances and their arrest histories — and whether any of those associates have been shot in the past.

 . . .

Wernick explains that the CPD’s crime database also obviously identifies everyone in the city who’s been arrested for and / or convicted of a crime. Though he wouldn’t share specific details about what went into the algorithms, he says those algorithms are quickly able to narrow down the list of people who "clearly have a high likelihood of being involved in violence." He says it even ranks them according to their chance of becoming involved in a shooting or a homicide.

"It's not just shooting somebody, or being shot," he says. "It has to do with the person’s relationships to other violent people."


Hanni Fakhoury, a staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation points out two issues:

"First of all, how are we deciding who gets on the list and who decides who gets on the list?" Fakhoury asks. . . . . "Are people ending up on this list simply because they live in a crappy part of town and know people who have been troublemakers?" Answers to those questions need to be public, he says.

"We are living in a time when information is easily shareable and easily accessible," Fakhoury says. "So, let’s say we know that someone is connected to another person who was arrested. Or, let’s say we know that someone’s been arrested in the past. Is it fair to take advantage of that information? Are we just perpetuating the problem?" He continues: "How many people of color are on this heat list? Is the list all black kids? Is this list all kids from Chicago’s South Side? If so, are we just closing ourselves off to this small subset of people?"