Taking a Byte Out of Crime

New USC Upstate center helps improve policing through data analysis.

Michele Covington, director of the Upstate Crime Analysis Center, works with student intern Kaelyn Scurry at the Greenville campus.
When a community experiences a crime spike, examining data to determine where, when and why the incidents are occurring is often the first step in finding a solution. The job of reviewing that data falls to a crime analyst in large law enforcement agencies, but small departments often don’t have the budget for a dedicated analyst. That’s where the new Upstate Crime Analysis Center (UCAC) hopes to have an impact.“I think what’s making this work is that we are taking our cue from the community and the needs of the community, because that’s what our job is supposed to do,” says Michele Covington, UCAC director and associate professor of criminal justice.

Covington says one reason she proposed the center is she realized the region lacked the kind of collaborative and analytical space that other parts of the country have. In speaking to crime analysts in the area, she learned many felt isolated, without any way to connect to others in the field and share ideas. The university seemed like a natural environment to provide such a space, but Covington wanted to make it a little different from the regional centers she’d seen.

“In other places, regional crime centers are generally controlled access. They don’t interact with the public in any way,” says Covington. While the area of the center containing law enforcement data will be restricted, UCAC will be a place for trainings, meetings, and civilian events that help the public understand how police decision-making works, Covington says.

“A lot of people, when they hear crime analysis, they’re thinking about forensics,” she says. “That’s not what it is, it’s really data analysis. We’re the nerds of policing.”

Once an analyst has collected and reviewed the crime data, they can look at strategies other jurisdictions have used to deal with the problem, and recommend ways to better allocate resources to address the issue, Covington explains.

“You’re not replacing traditional policing – you still have to respond to calls and do all those things,” she says. “But you can use data to try to better understand what’s happening in your area to make it safer, and make sure the policing is there.”

Visitors tour the Upstate Crime Analysis Center during its official opening in September.

Crime analysis classes are offered entirely online through Upstate’s Greenville campus, of which Covington is the executive director, and a certificate program for non-students was added for the first time this past fall. Covington says the latter option is particularly attractive to those in law enforcement seeking additional training.

The center will also be a resource for students in the criminal justice program who are interested in learning more about crime analysis or who have a concentration in that area. Senior Kaelyn Scurry, a criminal justice major, was introduced to the concentration through Covington’s courses, and ended up doing a summer internship at the center.

“It’s a different experience from sitting in class, doing the work and listening to lectures,” Scurry says. “This is hands-on experience. You get to do different trial runs, you see what works and what doesn’t.”

She particularly enjoyed sitting in on meetings Covington had with members of the Highland community in Spartanburg. The neighborhood is the focus of a grant to reduce crime and improve residents’ safety, and Covington is providing the data for specific areas to focus on.

“By having the tools and the programs that we have in the Crime Analysis Center, we’re able to help them,” Scurry says. “It’s all about helping.”

Thanks to partnerships with top vendors in the crime analysis field, UCAC is equipped with powerful software tools enable the center to provide assistance in a variety of areas, including mapping and social media analysis. It’s another way the center can share resources that are too costly for most small law enforcement agencies, Covington says.

One of the best resources, though, is other professionals, and Covington values the shared expertise they bring through collaboration. “Because so many crime analysts are self-taught, they tend to be very generous with their knowledge and their time, because they’ve been there,” Covington says.

So when an agency comes to UCAC with an issue, “we can say, here’s what this agency, which has a comparable mission and size, did for that, and it worked or didn’t work. We’re just trying to connect those dots for them.”