Police data behind the pandemic response: policing through COVID-19

By Andrew Vaught (Managing Director, Data Driven Strategies Division, Baltimore Police Department) and Joyce Iwashita (Project Associate, National Police Foundation)

Despite the challenges that exposures to the coronavirus (COVID-19) present to police operations, agencies around the nation continue to respond to public safety issues in our communities. According to the National Police Foundation’s (NPF’s) Law Enforcement Impact Dashboard, thousands of law enforcement officers across the country have been exposed to COVID-19. As members continue to respond to the call to serve and protect, data collection and analysis is helping the Baltimore Police Department (BPD) make informed decisions about staffing and resource allocation that ultimately affects the safety of our members and the level of service we provide to our community. At the same time, our agency has an eye on ways that this data could help us and our federal, state, and local partners plan and prepare for the next wave of COVID-19 or the next pandemic we are faced with.

Baltimore Police Department’s COVID-19 Data Collection and Analysis

Since its creation in August 2019, the BPD’s Data Driven Strategies Division (DDSD) has improved data collection and analysis processes throughout the department to better inform day-to-day decision-making. In addition, we have focused on providing tools that ease consumption and use of data at the operational level. As the COVID-19 pandemic began to impact Baltimore City, the DDSD recognized the need to monitor the impact on the department and the communities we serve. In conjunction with other revised operating procedures, the DDSD quickly created a form in Microsoft Access—a common database management system—for BPD call takers to begin tracking the personnel reporting exposure to COVID-19. To date, the BPD also continues to monitor staffing levels, medical callouts, workload, and crime trends. Based on these data sources, the DDSD developed a series of near real-time dashboards for command staff using embedded Tableau dashboards housed internally within the BPD’s network, which provide tools for analytics and data visualizations. These dashboards display the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on BPD member health, staffing, personal protective equipment (PPE), and calls-for-service, informing executive decisions on the best allocations of resources based on real-time data, and the changes that occur daily with this pandemic.

Figures 1 and 2 display BPD’s COVID-19 administrative tracking dashboard. The DDSD has configured the dashboard that updates every 30 minutes to be easily viewable on different devices and to be accessible to executives at any time.

Figure 1. Baltimore Police Department’s COVID-19 Administrative Tracker (Photo by: Baltimore Police Department)

Figure 2. Alternate view of the Baltimore Police Department’s COVID-19 Administrative Tracker (Photo by: Baltimore Police Department)

The DDSD developed a similar dashboard for situational awareness of crime trends in Baltimore City. Figure 3 displays year-to-date crime comparisons since COVID-19 began to impact Baltimore. The chart presents early indicators of the types of crimes being influenced by the COVID-19 pandemic. While most crimes have decreased, monitoring increases in crimes such as residential robberies help inform the allocation of department resources toward addressing these crimes.

Figure 3.  Year-to-Date Crime Comparisons begin on 3/15/2020, the first week Baltimore City initiated emergency management measures, Baltimore Police Department, 2019-2020

The BPD created each of these dashboards internally using tools that were easily accessible. The DDSD pushed the tools out to executive commanders and other department decision-makers with the intent of providing data that helps them to be nimble and stay informed through the pandemic.

According to BPD Deputy Commissioner Michael Sullivan, “All of the data analysis was done using the skills and tools we had available to us at BPD. The interface has made digesting the information easier for commanders, but even just collecting this raw data has put us in a much better position to make timely and informed decisions about the COVID-19 response.” Staff are also in the process of developing a public website that will enable community members to view these dashboards, supporting ongoing efforts to promote community-police relations through enhanced transparency.

Beyond the BPD’s Day-to-Day Operations: The National Picture

While law enforcement agencies like the BPD are focusing on using data to make operational decisions in a COVID-19 environment, collection of this data is also important on a national level. It is critical that law enforcement not only analyze immediate local impacts, but also examine national trends that can inform agency decisions longer term or get ahead of potential challenges by improving situational awareness. As more agencies collect information on how the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting the health, safety, and well-being of their officers, and the ability of agencies to carry out their mission, we can better monitor these impacts on a wider scale. For example, greater data collection has the potential to tell us which calls-for-service place officers at greater risk for contacting COVID-19, or how the pandemic is affecting employee mental health and family dynamics. Answers to these and other questions can help agencies make informed decisions on how to best protect their officers and their families from COVID-19 and other similar threats now and in the future.

Based on data and other information provided by law enforcement agencies to date, NPF has developed several resources to assist agencies during the COVID-19 pandemic. In March, NPF launched a COVID-19 Law Enforcement Impact Dashboard to help law enforcement leaders better assess and monitor the impacts of COVID-19, including officer exposures, diagnoses, workforce impacts, and PPE needs and projections. NPF is also analyzing the impact of COVID-19 on crime trends and is using information from the field to inform the development of ongoing resources.

Potential Areas of Data Collection for Future Analysis
Areas of data collection that law enforcement agencies may want to consider for future analysis include:
• The number of personnel exposed to a person with known or suspected COVID-19
• The number of personnel testing positive for COVID-19
• The number of personnel who die from complications due to COVID-19
• The demographics of personnel who are exposed, test positive, or die from COVID-19 (i.e. age, gender)
• The job-related characteristics of personnel who are exposed, test positive, or die from COVID-19 (i.e. patrol, investigations, specialized unit, administrative assignment)
• When personnel with known or suspected COVID-19 were able to return to work

Ongoing Analysis and Impacts

As we continue to feel the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on our departments and in our communities, data-driven strategies remain vital to inform day-to-day operational decisions and beyond. In the midst of all of the tragedy and challenges that COVID-19 has caused, we owe it to our department and community members to attempt to track and learn from this crisis, to the extent possible, and to continue to prepare and improve our organizations by working to protect their safety and wellness as we move forward.

We encourage other law enforcement agencies to join Baltimore in collecting data on the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact. Data can be collected in many ways, from simple spreadsheets to more sophisticated databases. Given the nature of police work, law enforcement agencies already document staffing and crime information. Making sure the data is updated, collected in a centralized and standardized manner, and is able to address relevant research questions is critical for future analysis.

Andrew Vaught is the managing director of the Baltimore Police Department’s Data Driven Strategies Division.  Director Vaught oversees all of the crime and intelligence analysts, the ComStat Unit, the Baltimore Crime Intelligence Centers, and the CitiWatch Program.  Director Vaught received his Bachelor of Science in Criminology from University of Nebraska at Omaha, his Master of Public Administration from University of Baltimore, and is currently a Ph.D. candidate in Public Policy at University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

Joyce Iwashita is a project associate with the National Police Foundation. She supports day-to-day management of selected projects across various research projects and programs. Ms. Iwashita received her Bachelor of Arts in Economics from Lewis & Clark College and Master of Arts in Security Studies from Georgetown University.

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