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Atlantic City's violent crime decreases with risk-based policing initiative

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ATLANTIC CITY — For the city Police Department, last year was about staying ahead of crimes before they were committed.

As a result, the number of shootings, homicides and robberies in the city decreased by more than a third in 2017 compared with the year before.

The department began using a risk-based policing model that analyzes data to map out crime risk factors around the city and places where crimes are likely to take place. The tool helps police prevent crimes by tackling factors in the environment identified as risks where crimes take place, and not the people.

“We liked how it focuses on places, not people. It was exactly what we wanted to do,” said Capt. James Sarkos, commander of the department’s investigations division.

The crime-analysis tool, called Risk Terrain Modeling, or RTM, was developed by Rutgers University criminal justice associate professor Joel Caplan and his colleague Leslie Kennedy in 2009.

It analyzes data and helps map areas where crimes are likely to occur, but also identifies factors that draw crime to an area, Caplan said.

Factors that could present a risk for crimes include convenience stores, auto shops, liquor stores, laundromats and vacant properties.

RTM can help the department find ways to make those areas less attractive for crime.

Cedar Market owner Issa Nammour has had difficulties over the years running his business. He has been through a string of burglaries and break-ins, and there was a fatal stabbing inside one of his stores in 2015.

Additional police presence is what he needs, he said, along with more attention on places that are at risk.

“Whatever they’re doing, it’s working,” Nammour said, standing inside his Arctic Avenue location. “They’ve been coming around. You can see more police presence.”

The data and maps from the RTM software are used by the Police Department and other agencies to allocate resources to deter crime at the places determined to be at risk for them, Caplan said.

For instance, the department has been doing checks in certain locations recommended by the model, such as convenience stores like Cedar Market. Each month, the model software prints a location list of where a patrol officer should visit and log.

Caplan presented the initiative to the department in 2015 under the direction of police Chief Henry White, who thought it could shift the focus to the areas instead of the people in crime hot spots where police are constantly responding, Sarkos said.

“If we say, ‘This area is high in crime,’ and then we’re constantly stopping everyone who happens to be in that particular area, it really turns the community off,” Sarkos said. “Crime is not just a police problem, it’s really everyone’s problem.”

The system also, through predictions from data analysis, helps prevent crime from moving to one area from another, Sarkos said.

While RTM is not a replacement for patrol initiatives, it is a tool to keep focus on areas that need it, Caplan said.

The department credits the reduction in crime in part to using RTM as a tool.

While they cannot be sure which crimes they are preventing, the department has been working with other agencies in the city, such as Planning and Development, Public Works, the Fire Department and residents, to make sure the trend continues.

On Friday, when Nammour’s Cedar Market was visited by two officers, he said he hopes the model continues to work.

“The presence makes a difference,” he said, as two officers stood in the doorway. “I hope they keep it up.”

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