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Donald BrownCrime-Mapping Software Aids Detective Work and Wins State Technology Award for U.Va. Professor Donald Brown

October 13, 1999 -- Crime mapping software developed by Donald E. Brown, University of Virginia professor of systems engineering, can recognize subtle increases in criminal activity up to three months before they are noticed by experienced crime analysts, according to test runs of the computer software.

Brown has been running pilot tests of his still-under-development software with police departments at the University of Virginia, in Albemarle County, and in the cities of Charlottesville and Richmond over the past few years. The Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services, the National Institute of Justice, and the U.S. Department of Justice also have shown interest in his work.

Brown recently captured a Governor's Technology Award for the crime-mapping software, dubbed ReCAP, which won for the most innovative use of technology in higher education.

ReCAP: The Project

The Regional Crime Analysis Program (ReCAP) is a computer application designed to aid local police forces in the analysis and prevention of crime. ReCAP works in cooperation with a police department's existing records management system (RMS), a geographic information system (GIS), and multiple data mining tools. ReCAP allows a police department to analyze crime in a more efficient manner and enhances its ability to serve the community.

The Problem

Many police agencies are now equipped with records management and geographic information systems, which crime analysts use to manually search through data, link records, and plot the results on maps. This process is time consuming and requires extensive training. In addition, there is no universally agreed-upon format for the data in the records management system, making it difficult for jurisdictions to share information.

The Solution

The ReCAP team, headed by Brown, developed the following tools:

  • A database-query tool that allows the extraction of required information from the records management systems. The ReCAP team helped three police departments merge their RMS systems.
  • A set of mapping tools. One of these tools allows the analyst to select all crimes or specific types of crimes in a given area and to view those crimes in the form of a list. Another allows the analyst to obtain information about an area, including the number of crimes that occurred there. While these features are built into existing geographic mapping packages, they do not require the analyst to be proficient in these packages. Instead, they provide an easily learned interface. For example, an analyst might be interested in all of the burglaries in the vicinity of a particular liquor store.
  • The control-chart tool allows the user to determine whether the number of crimes is unusually high or low. It creates a graph, plotting the number of crimes against their time of occurrence. It also displays the average number of crimes and the upper and lower range of variance in normal activity. If the number of crimes exceeds the upper range, an unusually large number of crimes have occurred and corrective action may be needed. The control-chart tool can be run automatically at night or in the background, to look for changing patterns of criminal behavior. If a change happens, the crime analyst is then notified. For example, the analyst might want to know if the number of burglaries near the liquor store was unusually high.
  • The time-charting tool plots the number of crimes occurring at a particular time of the day, day of the week, or day of the month. This tool allows an analyst to determine, for example, if these burglaries are more likely to occur in the afternoon, on Mondays, or on the 5th of the month. As with the control- chart tool, the time-charting tool can detect deviations from the normal patterns of crime in an area.
  • The tactical-analysis tool permits the analyst to calculate similarity between crimes. For example, the analyst could compare a burglary in which the criminal used a crowbar to pry open the back door with all of the other burglaries in the database. The tactical-analysis tool would return those crimes that were an exact match and those crimes that were similar, for example, a burglary in which the criminal opened the front door with a tire iron.

The Participants

At the University of Virginia
Systems Engineering Department
Virginia Institute for Justice Information Systems

In the Law Enforcement Community
Albemarle County Police Department
Charlottesville Police Department
Richmond Police Department
University of Virginia Police Department
Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services
Crime Mapping Research Center, National Institute of Justice
GIS Unit, Department of Justice

The Results

According to Brown's team, the development of ReCAP has had the following results:

  • It is now possible to map crimes quickly and efficiently. This makes it significantly easier to determine spatial patterns in crime and assists in the efficient allocation of resources. The mapping function is also being used to provide reports for neighborhood watch groups, reports to chiefs of police, and specialized reports on the patterns of specific crimes.
  • The control-chart tool makes it possible to determine quickly whether crime in a specific region is increasing or decreasing. In testing on actual data, it was determined that the control-chart tool detected increases in the number of crimes as much as three months before the police noticed the increase. When combined with the mapping tools, it allows the analyst to determine whether crime levels are unusually high in a particular neighborhood.
  • The time-charting tool makes it possible to determine if a particular crime is more likely on one particular shift or on one particular day. When combined with the mapping tools it makes it easier to efficiently allocate resources according to the time of the day, week, or month.
  • The tactical-analysis tool speeds up the comparison of crimes. An experienced analyst who has accurate and complete information on two cases needs about one minute to compare them; however, comparing one new case to 500 existing cases requires a full day's work. The tactical tool can do this analysis in a matter of minutes and shows a 90-percent agreement with experienced analysts.

The Innovation

ReCAP enhances the ability of the police to determine patterns in crime data. These include patterns in the location and time of crimes and changes in the frequency of crimes. This allows them to improve the level of service for the citizens in their jurisdiction.

ReCAP makes it easier to create reports about the number and location of crimes, reducing the time and cost of this reporting.

The ReCAP team has assisted the Charlottesville, Albemarle County, and U.Va. police departments in merging their records management systems. The use of one RMS system instead of three represents a significant improvement in overall efficiency. In addition, the merged system has been placed on a network, so that the data is electronically available to all police officers and investigators in all three departments, representing an important step toward regional cooperation between local governments.

For more information on ReCAP, call Donald Brown, at (804) 924- 2074, or contact him by e-mail at

CONTACT: Charlotte Crystal, (804) 924-6858

FOR ADDITIONAL INFORMATION: Contact University News Services at (804) 924-7116. Television reporters should contact the TV News Office at (804) 924-7550.
SOURCE: U.Va. News Services


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