Marion looks to researchers for better policing

Department collaborates with University of Iowa to gather data

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MARION — University of Iowa researchers will be embedded with the Marion Police Department for half a year to help the force get ahead of crime trends and decide where its resources are most needed.

The Marion City Council on Thursday approved the nearly $51,000 collaboration between the department and UI’s Public Policy Center.

Researchers from the center’s Crime and Justice Policy Research Program will examine records police currently keep and policy officers already follow to offer data analysis and evidence-based research.

“Our job is to do the background research to provide the data and analysis and some context,” said Peter Damiano, director of the Public Policy Center. “It’s really up to the policy makers to make those decisions. It’s really just to help support policy makers to make more educated decisions.”

Police will work with two main researchers at the center, Damiano said, but Marion also is able to work with policy center staff who specialize in community engagement, communications, information technologies and crime mapping.

Police Chief Joseph McHale, who was hired last October, said the partnership with the Public Policy Center will help the department with criminal intelligence and data-led policing. The data and tools researchers will gather allows police to better understand where to put their resources, McHale said.

Though it’s only a six-month collaboration, McHale said he hopes to lay the groundwork for a criminal analyst who starts working at the department in January 2018. It also will allow Marion police to prepare for a possible federal grant to begin social network analysis, a way to map who commits the majority of certain crimes to find how offenders may be connected to each other.

McHale told the council at a work sessions Tuesday that he hopes the partnership furthers the department’s analytical capacity and ability to visualize and record crime trends.

Though Marion police already keep track of crime trends, McHale said geographic information system crime mapping to visualize and analyze the data is something the department is not able to do currently.

“The qualitative methods that really go into the GIS mapping to break this city down and say this area is responsible for this number of reports and this number of crime types ... I don’t have that kind of education,” McHale said. “We don’t have anybody in the department that can help build a GIS map. There’s so much potential here. We just don’t have the capacity.”

McHale said he hopes the research has a lasting impact on the department’s beat system as well. McHale said officers will have a better idea of where to police and what to watch for if they are aware of what the trends are.

“The city is going to grow,” McHale said. “Right now when officers leave the station, they designate north and south for their beat. There’s no dissemination of the workload. If you can project reasonably that this area is going to produce this many reports, that divides the workload among your personnel. It builds beat integrity ... they get to know the community partners, they get to know the neighborhoods and they have ownership of it.”

Ultimately, McHale said, he hopes the partnership answers the question of: “Is what we’re doing making the community safer?”

l Comments: (319) 368-8516; makayla.tendall@thegazette.com

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