Every morning at 6, crime reports from overnight roll into Columbia Police Chief Randy Scott’s iPhone.
The reports are complete and up-to-date. And while it’s not new police technology, it’s revolutionary to the Columbia Police Department, which has been playing catch-up to other law enforcement agencies when it comes to modernizing its crime data reporting.
“That was inconceivable a year ago,” Scott said about his cell phone feeds.
In the past year, the department has spent more than $230,000 to upgrade its records-management system. That figure includes major computer software upgrades as well as the hiring of a crime analyst and an intelligence analyst for the department.
Accurate crime data is essential to public safety. It allows police to know where to focus resources. It helps City Council decide what ordinances and programs are needed to improve public safety. And reliable data provides a benchmark that lets the public know whether those efforts have been effective.
The improvements in crime data were a priority for Scott when he came on board in October 2010. He believes the department is finally producing information the public can trust.
“In no way, shape or form do I believe our numbers are going to be perfect, but I have strong confidence the numbers we will be reporting now are more accurate than ever in the city of Columbia,” Scott said.
Gone are the days when officers fill out a paper report passed from officer to field supervisor to investigators and to senior commanders. That system was slow, allowed for multiple errors and could be manipulated by those who wanted to improve the department’s image.
Now, officers fill out reports on computers in their cars and submit them electronically. The system does not allow an officer to fill out an incomplete report. Everyone can see the document immediately and reports can be cross-referenced by investigators. And the records are easier to retrieve when someone needs a copy.
To add to the improvement, Scott is stressing to his officers that they must file reports quickly so the department has the most up-to-date information possible.
The improved crime data was much-needed, said City Councilwoman Tameika Isaac Devine.
In the past, Devine said she often requested statistics for certain neighborhoods that she described as “under siege” by crime. But she stopped because the numbers were unreliable.
“After we started asking questions about what was behind something the officers would say, ‘Well, that’s not right,’” she said.
It’s clear Scott does not want to criticize past chiefs, and he is reluctant to answer questions about problems he has found in recordkeeping.
“It just wasn’t being done,” Scott said with a shrug.
There have been very public examples of the flaws.
As City Council debated a juvenile curfew in 2011, it needed to have statistical support to justify the need or it faced the possibility of a lawsuit from civil rights groups. That data was hard to come by.
“We get advice from our legal people who say, ‘You need to show a rational basis for the need,’ and statistics provide that,” Devine said.
When The State newspaper requested in October a report on juvenile crime, the department did not have the ages of 47 percent of the 51,863 suspects its officers encountered between 2008 and 2011.
That made it impossible to know how often people younger than 18 contributed to the city’s crimes during that period.
Last year, Scott discovered in a police headquarters closet a computer with more than 300 reports from the first eight months of 2010 that had not been entered into the department’s crime database.
There is some suspicion that previous police chiefs intentionally underreported crimes to make themselves and the department look good.
“I have heard that rumor, but I’m not sure if it’s true or not,” Devine said. “What I do know is we needed it to be accurate.”
Jeri Steedley, the department’s records supervisor, knows as well as anyone how much the department has improved. She is a retired city police officer who came back to work in the records division.
In the past, it was next to impossible to gather crime data on a neighborhood, Steedley said.
“Everything was done by hand,” she said. “Unless you pulled a monthly report folder and looked at every report by hand, there was no way to do it. Now, I can tell you down to a street or day and time. That’s critical.”
In the coming months, the department plans to roll out new crime data that will be accessible to the public. One, called RAIDS, will allow city residents to go to the department’s website and see crime data for their streets and neighborhoods. Another program in the works will allow people to file their own report online for certain nonviolent crimes.
These types of crime reporting programs are spreading across the country, including in South Carolina.
Last week, Newberry County Sheriff Lee Foster introduced an interactive crime mapping website. There, county residents can look up police and fire calls, learn where registered sex offenders live and search the map for specific crimes. And public officials can post real-time information such as road detours and traffic jams.
Scott said he wants to be transparent and to provide the public with as much information as possible.
“I’m taking many steps to make the data as accurate as possible and to make sure it is freely accessible to the community,” he said.
Reach Phillips at (803) 771-8307.