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Understanding the Risks of Local Crime

The Need to Understand Local Crime Conditions


To properly manage security risks at your facility, you need to know what they are. Yet it is amazing just how many managers responsible for security are totally ignorant of the types of crimes occurring in their community or even within their own facilities.


Property owners who are sued by an employee, tenant or guest for "negligent security" often find out too late just how important having knowledge of local crime conditions is. Often the first thing the plaintiff's attorney does is to obtain local crime data for the site where the alleged incident occurred in order to determine if the crime was "foreseeable", and if so, was "reasonable care" taken on the part of the property owner to prevent the crime from occurring.


It looks very bad to the jury when the property owner's representative on the witness stand is asked: "How many crimes of a similar type were committed in your neighborhood over the last  three years?" or "What did you do to determine the degree of potential crime at your property?" and the witness cannot properly answer. If you don't know the type and degree of crime at your site, how could you have possibly designed an effective security program to prevent it?


Aside from legal liability considerations, there are many practical reasons for accurately knowing local crime conditions. Most security budgets are tight and it makes sense to direct the money being spent to areas where it matters most. For example, if the threat of armed robbery is high at your site, money should probably be spent on preventing robberies before making security investments elsewhere.


Determining the Risks of Local Crime


There are many sources of data that can help the property owner to determine the risks of local crime. Most of these data sources are publicly available at little or no charge; a few require the payment of a fee. Because no source of data is perfect, it is generally necessary to gather information from multiple sources in order to gather a complete picture of the crime risks at your location.


There are six primary sources of local crime data: internal incident reports, crime data provided by neighboring facilities, police crime statistic reports, police calls-for-service reports, commercial crime forecast reports, and custom crime analyses prepared by security consultants.


Internal Incident Reports


Many organizations have an internal security incident reporting system that gathers data about crimes and other security incidents occurring at their facilities. Employees report crimes and security incidents to a central source such as the security department, and this data is compiled on a periodic basis to produce reports that summarize the rate of reported crime at the facility. If well managed, an internal incident reporting system can produce a highly accurate picture of the rate of crime at any given facility.


If your organization does not have a good security incident reporting system in place, it should establish one immediately. (See related article: Security Incident Reporting System )


Crime Data Provided by Neighboring Facilities


The type and frequency of crimes occurring at neighboring facilities are very significant when attempting to determine the risk of crime at your facility. While some of this type of information may be obtainable through public sources such as police reports, it is best to get it directly from your neighbors when possible. This can be a delicate situation, as people often don't want to share information about security problems with outsiders. These objections can usually be overcome when a mutually beneficial relationship with the neighbor has been established in advance.


We recommend that people who are responsible for security reach out to their counterparts at neighboring facilities. For example, if you operate a factory in an industrial park, you should contact the security and/or facility managers at each major business within a one-mile area surrounding your facility. Introduce yourself and explain that you want to establish an informal network for sharing information about security problems occurring within the neighborhood. Some businesses actually form a "crime watch" group and have regular meetings; others just get together for coffee occasionally to discuss areas of mutual concern.


Once your information sharing "network" has been established, you should proactively reach out to neighbors to get periodic updates on what types of security problems that they have been experiencing. You should consider this information to be an important indicator of the types of crimes that could occur at your facility, and make corresponding adjustments to your security program as needed.


Police Crime Statistics Reports


Police departments and other local law enforcement agencies maintain some type of crime reporting system and typically provide crime statistics reports on at least an annual basis. Although agencies are encouraged to use the Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) Program and National Incident-Based Reporting System (NIBRS) established by the FBI, participation is voluntary. As a result, there is vast inconsistency in the type and quality of police crime statistics available as you go from city to city throughout the United States.


In general, each city or county will be divided up into multiple geographical areas, which may be called "zones", "sectors", or "precincts". Each of these areas may be further sub-divided into "beats" or "districts". These areas sometimes correspond with US Census Bureau Census Tracts.


Crimes are usually categorized by type and whether they are "violent" or "non-violent". Some police agencies provide detailed breakdowns of each type of crime, others summarize crimes in a more general way.


Periodically, the police agency may produce an updated Crime Statistics Report. This is usually done at least annually, but some better agencies also produce reports on a quarterly or even monthly basis. An example of a typical Crime Statistics Report is shown below.


Police crime statistics can be a useful tool in determining the level of security risk at your site, but are not perfect. Often, the geographical areas used in police crime statistics reports may be too large to accurately indicate crime conditions at your specific site. For a example, if the "beat" in which your facility is located is five square miles in size, it is unlikely that crime is evenly distributed throughout this geographic area. There may be one or more "hotspots" within this area that are responsible for generating a large percentage of the reported crime.


Police crime statistics are best used to provide a general awareness about crime occurring in your city and neighborhood and to establish whether crime has increased or decreased within recent years. By obtaining several years worth of reports, and comparing them year to year, it may be possible to establish a trend as to which types of crimes are on their way up and which types are on their way down.


Police Calls-for-Service Reports


Almost every local law enforcement agency today uses some form of computerized dispatch system. These systems keep track of every call made to 911, and log the time the call was received, the location, the nature of the incident, the officers who were sent to call, and the final disposition. Using the computerized dispatch system, it is possible to create a report of every call made to the police concerning any given address in the city. These reports are known as "Calls-for-Service" reports.


Calls-for-Service reports often can be obtained from the law enforcement agency for free or for a small charge. In some jurisdictions, a report can simply be requested by telephone or email, in other jurisdictions, a formal request must be filed using Freedom of Information Act procedures.


Reports are requested by providing the address of the facility and the time period for which the information is needed. For example, one might request all calls-for-service information for the address 101 Main Street for the years 2010, 2011 and 2012. In some cases, requests can be made for a range of street addresses (100 block of Main Street through 1200 block of Main Street) rather than just for a single address.


Once obtained, the Calls-for-Service report will provide a listing of incidents at the location by date, including type of incident (theft, vandalism, etc.) and disposition (arrest made, report taken, false alarm, etc.) An example of a Calls-for Service report is shown below.

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It is important to note that most Calls-for-Service reports are not written to be used by the average consumer. They are cryptic in nature and provide raw data that may include numerous codes and abbreviations. You will need to get explanations of each type of code in order for the data to be meaningful, and will need patience in attempting to make sense of the report. Also, there are generally no summaries or recaps provided in the report, you will need to do this yourself to get statistics that can be properly analyzed.


While Calls-for-Service reports can be difficult to obtain and hard to use, they are one of the best sources of crime data available as they provide actual information about reported crime at any given location.


Commercial Crime Forecast Reports


There are commercial service providers who sell Crime Forecast Reports that specifically rate the risk of crime at any given address. These reports are created using a computer model that evaluates police crime statistics as well as many other factors including population data, economic data, housing data, and other socioeconomic conditions. One popular provider of Crime Forecast Reports is CAP Index.


Commercial Crime Forecast reports can be purchased online. To obtain a report, you simply type in the address of the facility and within minutes a customized report is available for download. This report provides numeric scores for each type of crime including homicide, rape, robbery, assault, burglary, larceny, and car theft. Separate scores are provided that compare crimes on a county, state and national level. Scores for previous years as well as projected scores for future years are provided that allow you to establish whether crime is on the upswing or downswing. A map is typically provided with the report that shows crime scores at the site as well as in the surrounding neighborhoods.


The advantage of Commercial Crime Forecast reports is that they are quick and easy to obtain, and that they allow rapid apple-to-apples comparison of crime rates between sites. For example, if you own a chain of 30 fast-food restaurants in different cities, you can obtain Commercial Crime Forecast reports for each one, allowing you to quickly identify locations that have higher than average crime scores. Trying to do this through other means (such as by using police crime statistics reports ) is nearly impossible because of the inconsistency in the ways in which different police departments provide crime data. Because of this, Commercial Crime Forecast reports are widely used by many large corporations who operate facilities in multiple locations throughout the county.


Despite the popularity of Commercial Crime Forecast reports, some security professionals are skeptical of their accuracy. These professionals claim that the computer algorithms and methodology used to create the crime forecast scores are proprietary and have not been subject to any type of peer review. Further, many security professionals are opposed to the use of any type of socioeconomic data in crime forecasting as they feel that it is inaccurate and possibly discriminatory.


Custom Crime Analyses


Because of the complexities of determining the risks of local crime, some property owners choose to hire a security professional to conduct a custom crime analysis for their facility. This can be done as a part of a complete Security Assessment for the facility by a physical security consultant, or can be done as a separate engagement by a consultant who specializes in crime analysis.


The consultant will typically gather data from sources such as incident reports, crime statistics, and calls-for-service reports and compile it into a usable format. The data can then be analyzed and presented to the property owner in a meaningful way. Most consultants who specialize in this work have spreadsheets or computer programs that simplify the data gathering and analysis process.


While probably the most expensive method of obtaining crime data, custom crime analyses are generally the most accurate. They should be used when contemplating major investments in security improvements or when legal litigation is a possibility.


Other Sources of Crime Data


There are several other sources of crime data that may be available at your location:


Many police departments now provide online crime maps that provide real-time information on reported crimes occurring within their jurisdiction. Be careful; there are some commercial providers that offer crime maps that are inaccurate or provide incomplete information.


Some jurisdictions provide a mapping service that includes the locations of the homes of registered sex offenders. While not applicable to all situations, this information can be useful to know when planning security for some types of facilities.


Some police departments now offer real-time Twitter feeds that provide notification when certain types of crimes are reported in the community. If your police department doesn't offer this service, consider using Google Alerts to create your own notifications when local crimes occur in your community.


If you have questions about how to determine the risks of local crime, or need help in assessing your security risks and in planning your security program, please contact us.

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