By Justin Wier
A group of Youngstown State University students are involved in helping the Youngstown Police Department develop new beats for their officers to patrol.
Thomas Wakefield, a professor in the department of mathematics and statistics, obtained a grant from the Mathematical Association of America to fund the research.
The purpose of the grant is to connect faculty with local businesses or government agencies and together provide students an opportunity to work on real-world math problems. This provides students with a hands-on experience doing work similar to that of mathematicians outside of academia.
He contacted the Youngstown Police Department to see if they could conduct mathematical research in a way that would benefit the department.
“[There] was this problem of the unequal workload among police beats in the city of Youngstown which has been growing over the past decade or so. And they thought it would be a suitable problem for our students to tackle, and I thought so too,” Wakefield said.
Kevin Mercer, a captain in the Youngstown Police Department, said the current beats were established about 15 years ago.
“Crime patterns and trends, and call volume and census tract data with population change significantly in that amount of time,” Mercer said. “So it’s just retracking that and redistributing the workload to make sure that all 13 beats are equally sharing the work across the city … [and] to see if we can realign them to get a quicker response time just by the geographical location of the beats and boundaries.”
The students obtained a year’s worth of data on police calls from the Youngstown Police Department and analyzed that data to see how extensive the problem was. They reviewed previous research that had been done and used that as a guide as they developed their own model.
“It’s a really neat model,” Wakefield said. “It’s a cellular growth type model where they plant a seed where they want a beat to grow, and they let the beat grow until the workload reaches the capacity that it needs to reach.”
The students presented the results of their research to the department during finals week.
Ashley Orr, Student Government Association president and a participant involved in the process, said this was a unique aspect of the process that students don’t always experience.
“As much as the contribution to the field and academia is incredibly important with academic research, it’s also incredibly important that what we’re doing actually has policy implications,” Orr said. “And that’s what the opportunity to meet with the police officers allowed us to have.”
In addition to the presentation, they met with representatives during the course of the semester as well, which allowed them to get a feel for the officers’ experiences.
“There’s even that anecdotal side,” Orr said. “The data is telling us one thing in an empirical sense. [For instance], the data is telling us there’s this unequal workload in beat 109. So from the anecdotal side, is the word in the YPD that beat 109 is terrible? Because if it is, then we’re confirming our suspicions. And at the same time we’re not letting the theory be the only guide to our research, but also what [the officers] are seeing in the field.”
She said it also gave the students an opportunity to practice explaining highly technical research to an audience that doesn’t do math everyday in a way that still makes sense.
“I think that’s an important skillset that Dr. Wakefield really honed in on this semester,” Orr said.
Mercer said the department has taken the beats as proposed by the students and fine-tuned the boundaries. They intend to reanalyze the data to make sure it didn’t affect the call volume. Ultimately, he is happy with the work the students have done.
“We should definitely be pushing forward to integrate them,” Mercer said. “I think it’s definitely something we can do. It probably won’t happen this year, just because we have some more analytical work to do.”
He said the union also requires a process in which all officers bid on their beats annually.
“If we take six months, study it, retrain the guys in the fall on the new beats, redo our computer system — because our computer pulls up the location it gives the beat to the dispatcher so they know which car to send — by the time we do all that we should hopefully be ready by January 1 if we’re going to implement them,” Mercer said.