Playing TAPS for Crime in Delaware

Mendte: Data-driven policing may shut down bad guys before they get serious.

It has been widely reported that Wilmington, Delaware has the highest per capita homicide rate in the country last year. This year it’s worse. Wilmington is on a pace to set a new record for murders.

What hasn’t been as widely reported is that the area around Delaware has shown a dramatic and consistent drop in crime over the past two years. The murder rate in the rest of New Castle County has dropped 55 percent since 2012; and the new man in charge is getting a lot of attention from the international law enforcement community for the unique crime fighting system he put into place.

“We recently had to bring in a translator for one of our meetings because some diplomats from Colombia wanted to see what we were doing,” said Colonel Elmer Setting, New Castle County’s police chief and new star.

Every Tuesday, New Castle County police gather for a presentation of the data collected for the new Targeted Analytical Policing System, known as TAPS. Sargent Michael Walsh, New Castle County’s crime analyst, stands in front of a county map and, like Cecily Tynan, he highlights the hot spots, cold spots and crime trends, so that the department can deploy its troops appropriately.

Data based deployment to fight major crimes is nothing new. New York, Philadelphia and other major departments have been doing it for over a decade. But the New Castle County Data map is not just for major crimes. Loitering, vandalism and public urination make the map right next to rape, robbery and murder.

“What you have to do is drill down into the data and figure out where the quality of life crimes are occurring,” explains Colonel Setting. “Because the kids on the corner who are drinking and selling drugs at 7 p.m. are causing a bigger problem at 9 p.m.”

Setting may be the first police chief in the country to take the old “broken windows” theory of law enforcement and combine it with new digital technology with great success. Its not just murders and violent crimes, but property crimes are all down between 25 percent and 60 percent over the two years since TAPS has been keeping track.

Every complaint, no matter how seemingly insignificant, is put into the database and analyzed by Sargent Walsh. “It’s not just where, but what day of the week and what time of day,” said Walsh. “We then determine the proper response and have resources in place before the crimes occur.”

Colonel Setting loves to tell the story about one neighborhood in New Castle County that was riddled with crime, shootings and murders, all drug-related. Police were responding to 911 calls in the neighborhood late at night and ignoring the nuisance crimes earlier in the night. “We changed that,” Setting proudly states. “And one day we stop a guy who was urinating in his yard. We found a .45 in his waistband, $7,000 in one pocket and in the other pocket was crack cocaine, heroin and marijuana.”

The lawn pee man was a drug dealer who didn’t want to go inside to go to the bathroom because he might miss a customer. The gun was to ward off robbers or the competition. “There was a good chance that he was going to be a shooting victim or he was going to shoot someone,” according to Setting. “I can say, with a pretty good degree of confidence, that we averted a homicide.”

The same neighborhood, which was once riddled with crime, has not had a murder or violent crime in the 18 months since TAPS has been implemented.

“If you’re going to just chase 911 calls, you’ll be running all day long because no matter how fast you get there, the crime has already occurred,” Setting explains. “We took some resources off the 911 treadmill and put them in areas hardest hit by quality of life crimes, based on the calls that come into our computer aided dispatch system, and told our officers to fix the problem.”

This all leads to the obvious question: Why doesn’t Setting use TAPS to help his neighbors in Wilmington? The answer is just as obvious. He doesn’t have jurisdiction. However, you can expect the new same program in Wilmington soon.

“The new Wilmington Police Chief Bobby Cummings has come to my meeting, we’ve given him access to everything and given Wilmington any resources they’ve asked for and I know they are adopting a similar program,” said Setting. “Bobby Cummings inherited a department that didn’t have the technological infrastructure that we have. They didn’t have computers in every car. They didn’t have the software and the algorithms to go through all the data. They do now and I’m confident Chief Cummings will be successful.”

The 19th and 20th murders of the year happened in Wilmington on August 31. The city is still on a pace for a record year, but since that bloody Sunday, there have not been any murders.

If things turn around in Wilmington, the credit will go rightfully go to the city’s police chief — but TAPS should get some of the credit too.

Follow @LarryMendte on Twitter.