Effectiveness of GIS in policing questioned

US researchers have questioned whether the use of geographic information systems (GIS) in policing is effective.

Dec 17, 2014
By Paul Jacques

US researchers have questioned whether the use of geographic information systems (GIS) in policing is effective.

It is typically used for mapping crime, identifying crime ‘hotspots’, assigning officers and profiling offenders, but little research has been done about the effectiveness of the technology in curbing crime, according to a study by the Sam Houston State University (SHSU).

Yan Zhang, a SHSU professor and co-author of Geographic Information System Effects on Policing Efficacy: An Evaluation of Empirical Assessments, explained: “Published accounts of applications in policing suggest a significant role in crime analysis and strategic deployment. Nonetheless, there is a total lack of independent evaluation of GIS effect in policing organisations.”

According to a 2001 survey by the National Institute of Justice, 62 per cent of US police departments with more than 100 officers use GIS systems.

Collectively, the technology has been credited with reducing crime, decreasing residential burglaries, tracking parolees and serious habitual offenders and identifying hotspots with high concentrations of crime.

The study found four key uses for GIS in policing: crime mapping identifies the geographical distribution of crime to deploy officers to hotspots of activity and to develop other intervention plans.

Many US police departments have developed computerised statistics, or CompStat systems, to help manage the decision-making process. The system assists with instant crime analysis, deployment techniques, active enforcement of trivial crimes, monitoring of emerging patterns and accountability programmes for law enforcement managers.

GIS also is used to create geographical profiling of offenders.

While these practices are widespread, particularly in larger departments, the study says little research is available to measure their effectiveness in policing. Researchers say current studies indicate that GIS is used mainly to aid in the design of policing strategies and/or to evaluate the decision-making processes at law enforcement agencies.

“There is a near total lack of independent evaluations of GIS effects in police organisations,” said Professor Zhang. “Since GIS represents a significant element of both strategic and tactical decision-making for law enforcement agencies, purposeful, focused and relevant evaluations would contribute to maximising GIS efficacy.”

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