Alum Fights Denver Crime with Data
Finding the Perfect Vocation Meant Expanding his Job Description
If you watch the television version of crime-solving (on any number of network dramas, any night of the week) a very clear picture emerges of how crime analysts utilize data to help solve and stop crime. In a fictionalized world, where a few strokes on a keyboard can produce holographic 3D clues, unlimited data turns spiky-haired computer gurus into virtual superheroes–but in the real world it takes a little more sweat and a whole lot more patience.
Enter Chris Gray, Political Science alum from 2009 and Denver Police Department (DPD) Crime Analyst since 2011. "For a long time I had an interest in law enforcement," remembers Gray. As a youth he applied to become a police officer, and after learning his applications would get a boost from a bachelor's degree Gray decided to finish his undergraduate studies at Metropolitan State University of Denver. He worked at the Auraria Campus Bookstore immediately after earning his bachelor's degree in Political Science. Hired to manage the bookstore student employees, Gray was given a financial assistance boost by AHEC to continue with his master's degree. Gray says the support he felt on campus and the motivating faculty he found at CU Denver got him through his graduate program one or two classes at a time.
Upon graduation, Gray took a job working for the non-profit Jeffco Action Center, which assists the economically distressed community around Denver. Gray was managing facilities for the organization's facilities and says, "They do a lot of great work, but the job had absolutely nothing to do with my degree." So Gray remembers looking into jobs with the State Department, but chuckles that "life happens," and searching for a gig in law enforcement was put on hold for a few years while he focused on his family.
When Gray was finally ready to start putting the skills he had acquired at CU Denver to work in 2011 the Crime Analyst position within the Denver Police Department Major Crimes Unit was just being re-created. The economic downturn had eliminated funding for the position for a few years, and Gray says he felt lucky to be in a position to apply, but he also knew the selection process was going to be competitive. There were hundreds of applicants from all over the nation, but ultimately Gray got the job because, he says, as a local candidate he had the lay of the land, and "I knew how to create the maps and use the technology. I got the knowledge I needed from my degrees." He especially credits a course he took from Political Science Chair Tony Robinson on using geographic information systems (GIS) in political science study with bringing together his love of computers, maps, data, and sociological aspects of crime. GIS had been used by police for decades, but new tools emerging at the time made it possible for Gray to see the future of crime data analysis expanding in challenging and exciting ways.
Because the Crime Analyst position within the DPD Robbery Unit had been vacant several years, during which time mapping technology and data gathering had advanced, Gray had the freedom to establish some new priorities. The Major Crimes Unit deals with Robbery (where Gray spends the majority of his time), Homicide, and Sex Crimes, among other crimes, and perpetrators of these types of crimes often establish patterns. "Patterns in crime are there to be found," Gray says. "Robberies don't go away. Once you do one, you don't typically stop." He says that if the average suspect successfully commits one robbery he or she will almost certainly commit more. Often drug addictions fuel people, which means suspects can be violent and often carry real weapons, and the sooner the DPD can track them down the less the chance for escalations. He says with pride, "Our detectives in Denver are world-class, especially the robbery guys, and the number of robberies they solve is much, much higher than the national average. So for me being able to support what they're doing is amazing."
As Gray began to show how detecting crime patterns could help in solving existing cases as well as predicting future crimes, his services began to be requested by other units. Gray has consulted on gang issues and burglary cases, which means he has worked on investigations that have touched every area of the city, from tagging graffiti all the way up to capital murder. "When I was hired they expected me to have a map or two done every week, and a few other things to do here and there," remembers Gray. "But after a couple weeks of figuring out how things were structured, and where I needed to go to get things done, I knew I needed to I start 'rewriting' the position for what I needed it to be for me. I'm not someone who's good sitting around doing nothing."
In April of 2012, Gray's unit was merged with the DPD Homicide/Cold Case Unit, and since then Gray has used his talents and background to assist Detectives with suspect identification, recovery of digital/video evidence, crime pattern mapping, and social media research. He almost never knows for sure what any given day will entail. He gets called to scenes to survey for variables detectives aren't looking for, explaining, "I'm looking for why this particular place was targeted over a next-door place, and it helps me with my process later on." Gray says he spends a lot of time trying to get into the minds of thieves, looking at how things like lighting, hours of operation, egress points, and other security issues might have influenced a particular crime.
Gray has an investigator's mind but not a detective's demeanor; he says he doesn't want to be out serving warrants, on patrol, or arresting people. He loves working on predicting crime patterns in order to better help the department prevent them. He's careful with the word "predict," as he understands it can be loaded with echoes of "profiling," but he also knows that in many cases the complex data is there to help police departments direct their limited resources better. He remembers the first time his predictions sent helicopters and patrols to certain areas to investigate, and recalls the very real stress of being the person making those calls. His success over time has bolstered not only his own confidence in his talents, but the trust and confidence of his department, and a promotion last year.
When Gray received the award of Civilian Employee of the Year for 2013, the citation included, "whenever he is called in the middle of the night, he immediately responds with the needed intelligence information." Gray is humble about this, stressing that he isn't up every night fighting crime, and says, "That was a crazy case." On that fateful night, internet access was down at the station and officers were in pursuit of a suspect they believed had killed his wife and who claimed to have his children in his car with him. The officers needed intelligence on the suspect to better determine how to react. From his home Gray was texting with detectives while researching on his computer. He was able to track down an address related to the suspect, and by sending officers to investigate there the children were found safely. "It's satisfying when the outcome is like that," Gray says.
Accounting, analytics, and reporting were a big part of the job for police analysts in the past, but as data collection becomes stronger its use in investigating will continue to grow in the future. "My office is establishing credibility region-wide, now you've got Aurora and Arapahoe County and all kinds of places hiring analysts." In 2013, Gray helped the Arapahoe County Sheriff's Office in the process of hiring a Crime Analyst, and sees opportunities for students looking to get into a profession that will be expanding in the future. Just since Gray started in 2011 the prevalence of crime analysts in police departments has grown, so that now many cities and counties have multiple analysts in various divisions. Gray encourages students with talents for critical thinking and problem solving to look into crime analysis as a potential career. He says the satisfaction he gets from his job is enough to cement it as a passion, and he looks forward to using future technology to keep fighting crime for years to come.