The Rising Murder Rate & the “Ferguson Effect”

The headlines are clear. Murder Rates Rising Sharply in Many U.S. Cities declares the New York Times. Echoing other media outlets, it ominously describes sharply increased homicide rates in at least 30 American cities. New York, Philadelphia, and Dallas all report a rise in murders. After decades of a decreasing crime rate, why is there a sudden uptick?


The murder rate is still low – for us

To get an idea of why the murder rate has suddenly increased, it would be good to know why it went down in the first place. For example, in 1990, New York City had more than 2000 homicides. By 2014 that number was just over 300. Even with the recent increase, the national homicide rate is just a fraction of what it once was (America still has one of the highest rate of violent crimes in the industrialized world. We’re number 1!).

The only honest answer about the cause of the decrease in the murder rate is that we don’t know. Some point to improved policing policies. Some say it was an increase in mandatory sentencing, while others cite the removal of lead from our environment and even legalized abortion as possible causes (Vox). This is a topic that has been extensively studied, but the conclusion of the academic world seems to be a collective shrug. About the only thing we know with any certainty is that the much celebrated “broken windows” policy had nothing to do with the national decrease.


A watched cop never works

The fact that we do not know why crime went down in the first place has not stopped some from speculating about the recent reported increase. FBI Director James Comey has coined the term “Ferguson Effect.” According to his theory, increased scrutiny of the police by the public and video cameras has had a chilling effect. Police are too intimidated to do their jobs.

Comey has been forthright in acknowledging the lack of evidence for his idea (Guardian). As pointed out by others, the increase in crime, at least in St. Louis, predated the troubling events in Ferguson.

Whatever the evidence actually is, there is something insulting about this theory. Is the FBI Director really arguing that if police can’t shoot and beat up unarmed civilians, they won’t fight crime? Are police really so sensitive and immature that in the face of public criticism and scrutiny they won’t carry out their critical duties? If this is true, then the anti-police brutality activists have underestimated how bad the situation is.

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Too darn hot

Alternative theories for the increase in the homicide rate are rare (for reasons which will be discussed below). On my own, I can think of at least two other possible causes.

One of the oldest and strongest correlations observed by social scientists is the relationship between temperatures and crime. When it gets hotter, crime goes up. The summer in 2015 was the hottest in 135 years (Huffington Post). The connection between heat and crime is so well-known that I am a bit surprised that no one in the media has mentioned this as a possible cause.

The second possible cause is even more controversial, but has important proponents. “The proliferation of firearms is one of the factors behind a rise in homicide rates in many U.S. cities this year, according to senior law enforcement officials at the International Association of Chiefs of Police conference in Chicago” (Business Insider). Furthermore, as the New York Times reports about recent new gun laws, “Nearly two-thirds of the new laws ease restrictions and expand the rights of gun owners.”

More guns, more crime, asserts this theory. For a variety of reasons, I do not believe this is even remotely correct, but it has as much evidence, if not more, as the “Ferguson effect.”

You may have heard about the “Ferguson effect,” but not of competing theories. Why?  Because when researchers studied recent patterns of criminality, they discovered there has been no increase in homicide rates.


Statistics are pure evil or the science that even smart people hate

I have studied statistics as an undergraduate at Yale and at a graduate level for a healthcare course. When people ask me about it, I point to my bald head, and state that “Before I studied statistics, I had hair.” I’ve seen brilliant mathematicians and physicists despair when confronted with the challenge of analyzing probabilities.

So it is with a great deal of trepidation that I embark on a discussion of the statistics behind the crime wave. Don’t worry; I will try to keep this as simple as possible.

It is very easy to misunderstand or misrepresent statistics. For example, the New York Times article cited at the beginning of the post describes an increase of homicide in 30 cities. It doesn’t mention the decrease in homicides in dozens of other cities, such as Indianapolis, San Diego, and Columbus. As hard as it is to believe, simple cherry picking of evidence is a major factor contributing to the media’s outcry about the so-called crime wave.

To be fair, there has been an increase in the murder rate, at least for some of the largest cities, but it is far from significant. Take a look at the following statistics:

Mureder rate table 1Source: Washington Post

Looks pretty bleak, right? Homicides have definitely increased. Now add a little more information:

Mureder rate table 2

Even with the so-called “sharp increase,” the homicide rate is still lower than it was in 2012, or any other time since 1985. With the added information, the increase in the homicide rate doesn’t look as dire as it did before.

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“We have no idea what’s going on” is a bad headline

As reported by the Washington Post, the evidence for a spike in the homicide rate is mighty thin. Despite the alarming headlines, the changes have not been very dramatic. It is impossible to tell if the recent spike in some cities is a genuine change or a simply a normal variation.

Crime statistics are notoriously variable. A single domestic incident may raise the annual murder rate for a medium-size town from 4 victims to 5 victims. That’s a 25% increase, far larger than the homicide rate spike that we have been discussing.

The lack of definitive proof hasn’t stop people from reaching conclusions based on their preconceived notions or trying to exploit headlines for political gain. No police chief ever went to a town council and said, “I need a big budget increase, because the crime rate has significantly fallen.” No newspaper ever ran a headline with “FBI releases inconclusive and meaningless statistics.”

Of course, the recent homicide increase could be a start of a disturbing trend. However, we won’t know for months, if not years. Before we start manning the barricades, let’s take a deep breath, and evaluate the evidence rationally.

Wouldn’t it be great if someone ran the headline, “Politicians and media figures urge calm intelligent action”? That would definitely be a new trend.

U.S. Army War College Key Strategic Issues

The US Army War College (USAWC) just released its key strategic issues for the academic year 2015/2016. People who wish to understand the direction of the American military would be wise to study this document.

What is the US Army War College?

Every year, the USAWC provides graduate level instruction to approximately 800 Army colonels, and lieutenant colonels. Before matriculation, all students must have first completed U.S. Army Command and General Staff College. Also attending are some civilians from Department of Defense, State Department, and the National Security Agency as well as officers from other military services.  After completing a full time 10 month course (or a half-time 2&1/2 year course) students are awarded a master’s degree in strategic studies.

In brief, this is a high-level leadership course for high–level leaders.

What is the Strategic Studies Institute?

A significant element of the USAWC is the Strategic Studies Institute (SSI).  Interestingly, the SSI website does not list education or courses as their “product,” but focus on a variety of white papers, studies, monographs, and books. The SSI has a worldwide network of “external partners” who write about half of these publications. These publications are distributed to decision makers in the military, government, and industry. In addition to the above-mentioned master’s program, these publications are an important way of influencing military and security policies.

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What is the Key Strategic Issues List?

As described by the SSI website, “Every year SSI compiles a Key Strategic Issues List (KSIL) based on input from the U.S. Army War College faculty, the Army Staff, the Joint Staff, the unified and specified commands, and other Army organizations. This is designed to guide the research of SSI, the U.S. Army War College, and other Army related strategic analysts.”


What does the KSIL actually say?

I had two immediate impressions of the KSIL. First, it doesn’t provide answers, it raises questions. For example the KSIL doesn’t state something along the lines of, “The American military better get its act together in the Pacific theater, because China is scaring the bejejuss out of its neighbors.” Instead, it asks a variety of related questions, including “How can the Army best contribute to security assurance and deterrence in East and Southeast Asia?”

Secondly, it lists emails of numerous professors, many of whom are key influencers in their own right. For someone doing serious research on American military thinking, and needs to reach out to significant people, this is a treasure trove of contact information.


Quantitative analysis

One way of determining the importance of a topic is to count how often it is mentioned.  The KSIL is a PDF document, so I was able to use the “find” function to search for appropriate words.

For example, the word “China” is mentioned over 10 times. This is to be expected. The current administration has been very public about its “Pacific Tilt.” It makes sense that the Army would prepare its leadership for this theater.

Cyber war was mentioned 10+ times. I discussed this with Robert Culver, Robert Culver, AMREL’s Director of Business Development Programs (DOD), who has had a long career in both the Army and Pentagon procurement. He reported extreme interest in cyber war at the recent AUSA gathering and suspects significant funding will be flowing in that direction.

More disappointing was the complete lack of references to unmanned systems. Even the more colloquial terms “robot/robotics” were only mention 3 times, and usually in a laundry list of other issues. Just a few years ago, unmanned systems was the hot girl the military couldn’t wait to date. Now, it’s the ex that gets blocked on FaceBook.

Robert thinks the non-mentions of unmanned systems are insignificant. He said that the KSIL is a strategic document, and unmanned systems are a tactical issue.

I understand his reasoning, but I don’t entirely agree. Unmanned systems have important ramifications that could be considered strategic in that they affect our ability to project force on a regional basis. Unmanned systems achieved prominence in Afghanistan and Iraqi campaigns, which despite our continued involvement, are being flushed down the memory hole. IEDs, the most lethal weapon of those campaigns, get zero mentions. No mention at all of counter insurgency (insurgency only once). As further evidence of our disengagement with the Middle East, Africa got more mentions than Syria, ISIL (ISIS), and Iraq put together.

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War is just so complex

Important topics expressed in KSIL are “complexity” and “hybrid” warfare. As illustrated by Russian tactics in the Ukraine, a complex/hybrid war occurs when the enemy is simultaneously fielding traditional state-controlled military forces, irregular militias/guerillas, cyber attacks, and media/propaganda campaigns.  Lt. Gen. Robert M. Shea, USMC (Ret.) writing in Signal magazine, gives a nice, introduction to the challenges of complex/hybrid wars. He is concerned that the traditional American strength of joint warfighting is being eroded by the demands of this new kind of war.


Amateurs study tactics. Professionals study something else.

I was disturbed that there were very few mentions of acquisitions, procurement, and logistics. I understand that these are technically tactical concerns, and are much less sexy than cyber warfare. However, the continued inability of the American military to deal with the problems affecting procurement has profound strategic implications.

Our reliance on expensive weapon systems as well as expensive soldiers has severely limited our ability to project force in many parts of the world. Clever enemies have turned the poor quality of their fighters and equipment into an advantage. A lost battle may cost them $10,000, but the victory for us may cost us $10 million. Even for as nation as wealthy as ours, this is not sustainable. Top-level officers and strategic leaders may not be interested in this problem, but they should be.


Read it for yourself

The Key Strategic Issues List is worth reading in its entirety.  Download it here.

Three Surprising Applications for Robots [VIDEOS]

Everyone is looking for the “killer app,” the must-have application that will speed the consumer adoption of unmanned systems.  As evidence by the following videos, the next big thing may be something that none of us thought of.

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Israeli Unmanned Developers are FAST

The article below, originally published in Strategy Page, details the development, deployment, and sale of the Israeli-made Micro Tactical Ground Robots (MTGR). It illustrates several key reasons why tiny Israel is a giant in the unmanned world:

  • Close cooperation between military and civilian institutions. During the 2014 war with Hamas, the military authorities identified a need for tunnel-traveling Unmanned Ground Vehicles, and immediately informed local manufacturers.
  • Speed. Within a month, unmanned suppliers produced a design, got it accepted, and then developed, manufactured, and delivered working models. This is quite a contrast to the slow pace of the struggling American AEODRS program.
  • Leveraging obtainable technologies. Before the deployment of the MTGR, no one had an unmanned system capable of dealing with the complex and dangerous Hamas tunnels. Rather than focus on new (and presumably profitable proprietary solutions), the MTGR simply adapted existing technologies.
  • Small is good. This blog has previously noted the popularity of smaller ground robots. However, in this case “small” also refers to the country. Famous for its astronomical size, America’s defense sector has been criticized for its redundancy and endless bureaucracy. In contrast, virtually everyone in Israel knows each other. When the discovery of the Hamas tunnels sent a jolt of fear through Israeli society, the MTGR developers undoubtedly felt it as well. Many probably had family fighting in Gaza. In Israel, war is not something that happens to someone else. Desire for profit played a role in the manufacturers rush to create the MTGR, but they were also deeply concerned about protecting their communities and soldiers from terrorists.
  • Combat tested. The Technical Readiness Level (TRL) of 9 is highly valued by the American military. It means that the item under consideration has been proven in the real world.  Israel, unfortunately, has lots of opportunity to test defense systems in actual combat.

I am not sure how we can adapt the Israeli model to the US Defense sector.  Whatever frustration we may have with the endless attempts at Defense procurement reform, we can at least be assured that developing effective Defense systems in a timely matter is possible.


Infantry: Robots Hurry Up And Evolve

An Israeli firm has managed to sell some of its small battlefield robots to the American military, which is a first for an Israeli firm. The U.S. Air Force has ordered over 200 Israeli MTGR (Micro Tactical Ground Robot) for their bomb disposal teams. This came after MTGR demonstrated its capabilities during the 2014 war with Hamas in Gaza. This was particularly true with the large number of Hamas tunnels discovered. These proved more complex and dangerous than any previously encountered and a new robot was needed to deal with the situation. Within days a specification was provided to Israeli robot manufacturers and by the end of July 2014 a new robot design had been accepted, in production, delivered and in action. This was the MTGR and while it was not a major breakthrough, it was simply a better application of design elements that had been developed since the 1990s and suited current Israeli needs. The Israelis have ordered over a hundred MTGRs for delivery ASAP. Based on its success in Gaza MTGR is being offered to other armed forces and police departments around the world.

MTGR is a 7.3 kg (16 pound) tracked (or wheeled version weighing 9 kg) robot. Tracks are preferred for climbing stairs and getting over obstacles. MTGR can carry up to 9 kg of accessories. The basic MTGR comes with five cameras, a microphone, and can carry additional sensors. The cameras have day/night capability, 360 degree views and x10 zoom. One of the more useful accessories is a robotic arm for clearing debris or searching. Another useful item are bright LED lights when you need illumination. MTGR uses GPS and can carry a laser rangefinder to measure dimensions of where it is. The battery lasts 2-4 hours depending how onboard equipment is used. Top speed is 50 meters a minute and max range for the operator is 500 meters.

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MTGR is designed to be carried in a backpack and an operator can use the handheld control unit to operate several MTGRs at once. The MTGR was a lifesaver for exploring Hamas tunnels, which are often filled with booby traps and other nasty surprises for advancing Israeli troops. Often an MTGR was simply sent down, take a lot of measurements and pictures and then withdraw after which explosives will be lowered down and the tunnel collapsed. If MTGR detects documents or electronic devices like laptops, tablets or cell phones, MTGR will carefully survey the area and troops will go down to recover the valuable intel often found on such devices. If MTGR can reach cell phones or small tablets it can pick them up and carry them away.

What made MTGR special was the firm that provided it demonstrated that it was able to take existing technologies and quickly adapt them to new situations. The small firm that developed MTGR it had an existing design modified and readied for production in less than a month. In wartime this is a very valuable capability. This has now been demonstrated under combat conditions and the rest of the military robot industry has to adapt.

The U.S. Army has been using robots like the MTGR since the 1990s. American designs went through rapid refinement after September 11, 2001 because thousands of these robots were bought and used by American troops in combat. The culmination of all that was expressed in the XM1216 SUGV (Small Unmanned Ground Vehicle). SUGV was designed to be the definitive next generation infantry droid, replacing existing droids like the similar but larger PackBot. Not surprisingly MTGR is based on the same experience but more refined and using some newer technology.  This design was not ready for action until most of the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan was over. Thus by 2012 only about 200 of these combat robots were in service or on order. It was only in 2011, after more than six years of development, that the army bought its first production model SUGV. Many in the U.S. Army were not satisfied with how long it took to get SUGV to the troops and MTGR is proof that it could have been done faster.

Before September 11, 2001, the army didn’t expect to have robots like PackBot or SUGV until 2013. But the technology was already there, and the war created a major demand. The robots expected in 2013 were to be part of a new generation of gear called FCS (Future Combat Systems). SUGV is still waiting for some of the high tech FCS communications and sensor equipment (which MTGR used), and appeared in 2011 using off-the-shelf stuff in the meantime. The troops don’t care, as long as it worked. These small robots have been quite rugged, having a 90 percent availability rate.

The overly ambitious, expensive and much delayed FCS program was cancelled in 2009 but successful bits, like SUGV, were allowed to keep moving. This was a big deal for SUGV, because demand for these small droids collapsed when the Islamic terror offensive in Iraq did in 2008. There were plenty of droids left over for service in Afghanistan, where the Taliban provided a much lower workload for the little bots than did Iraq.

SUGV is a 13 kg (29 pound) robot, similar to the slightly older and larger Packbot. SUGV can carry 3 kg (6.6 pounds) of gear, and seven different “mission packages” are available. These include various types of sensors and double jointed arms (for grabbing things.) SUGV is waterproof and shock resistant. It fits into the standard army backpack, and is meant to operate in a harsh environment. The battery powered SUGV is operated wirelessly, or via a fiber optic cable, using a controller that looks like a video game controller with a video screen built in. SUGV can also use an XBox 360 controller, with the right drivers. Like the earlier PackBot and later MTGR, SUGV can climb stairs, maneuver over rubble and other nasty terrain.

The SUGV design is based largely on feedback from combat troops. For example, it is rugged enough to be quickly thrown into a room, tunnel or cave, activated and begin sending video, as well as audio, of what is in there. This feature makes it very popular with the troops, who want droids with the ability to see, hear and smell were more acutely. No one likes being the first one going into dark, potentially dangerous, places. Throwing a grenade in first doesn’t always work, because sometimes frightened civilians are in there. Despite all these fine qualities, the current generation of robots is not fast enough, agile enough or sensitive enough to compete with human troops doing this kind of work. Sometimes, however, the robots are an adequate, and life-saving, substitute. SUGV is supposed to be better at this sort of thing.

SUGV can also perform outpost and listening post work. These are two dangerous jobs the infantry are glad to hand off to a robot. Outposts are, as the name implies, one or two troops dug in a hundred meters or so in front of the main position, to give early warning of an enemy attack. A listening post is similar, but the friendly troops are often much deeper into enemy territory. The SUGV battery enables it to just sit in one place, listening and watching, for eight hours or more. After that, you send out another SUGV with a fresh battery, and have the other one come back for a recharge. No risk of troops getting shot at while doing the same things, and the troops really appreciate that. Again, the problem with this is that the robot sensors are just not there yet. The sensors are getting close, but not close enough for troops to trust their lives to this thing.

Other dangerous jobs for the SUGV are placing explosives by a door (to blow it open for the troops), or placing a smoke grenade where it will prevent the enemy from seeing the troops move. Since 2006 users of the older PackBot UGVs filled military message boards with interesting uses they have found for these robots, and new features they could make use of. SUGV and MTGR are the products of all that chatter.

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There Are No Robot Surgeons

Recently, I sat down to talk with Daniel Naftalovich, who is a PhD candidate in robotics engineering & control systems at California Institute of Technology. Simultaneously, he is pursuing a medical degree from the University of Southern California (he claims he has time to sleep, but somehow I doubt it). As may be expected, he had a great deal to say about the use of unmanned systems for use in surgeries.

“The one thing I try to make people understand is that robot surgeons do not exist,” says Naftalovich.

This assertion may seem strange, because we hear a lot about the increasing role of unmanned systems in the healthcare field. Indeed, a Google search yields over a million results for “robot surgeon.”

What actually is happening is robotic-assisted surgery. In my discussion with Naftalovich I was surprised to learn that surgical robots have virtually no autonomy. “Robotic surgeons” are really computerized tools, which enable the human doctor to teleoperate. Unlike traditional surgery, in which the doctor stands on his feet, hovering over the patient, robotic assistance enables the surgeon to sit down a few feet away, often in the same room.

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“Teleoperated surgery offers a number of advantages,” explains Naftalovich. “For one thing, a surgeon who is sitting has greater endurance during lengthy operations than one who is standing.” The physical toll on surgeons during long operations is a real problem; neck problems are a prominent career ender for many surgeons.

Teleoperation offers another advantage. More surgical tools can be placed above the patient, since the doctor is no longer above him. “A robot can have four arms, while a human has only two,” says Naftalovich. This allows a more rapid transition between tools during operations, and better tool management.

Often in Human-Robot Interactions (HRI), the human has to learn unnatural motions in order to use an unmanned system to execute an action. For example, to get an effector arm to grasp and pick up an object, a human operator may have to maneuver a joystick or even punch codes into a keyboard.

In contrast, robotic-assisted surgery allows human doctors to be more human, i.e. use more natural motions to execute tasks. Most robotic-assisted surgery has been focused on laparoscopy, which reduces the size of an incision by inserting a thin, lighted tube into the patient’s body. Naftalovich describes a typical traditional laparoscopic tool as resembling “a pair scissors tied on the end of a stick.”  Since the tool rests on a fulcrum, the doctor has to adjust his movements accordingly. When he moves his hands up, the effector arm moves down. When he moves his hand to the right, the tool goes to the left, and so on.  Robotic-assisted surgery eliminates this inverted motion and allows the doctor to move in a normal, more intuitive way.

Robotic-assisted surgery can enhance motion as well. It can eliminate the tremor of a doctor’s hand (a real problem in lengthy surgeries). In addition, it can scale the doctor’s movement to a size that is appropriate. It evens allows the surgeon the surgeon to rotate the effector arm with his wrist motion, something traditional tools will not do. What robotic-assisted surgical tools cannot do is operate autonomously.

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I suggested that autonomous surgical capabilities may be added piecemeal, as they are with automobiles. Some new cars have autonomous capabilities, such as anti-collision features and parking. Similarly, a relatively simple autonomous capability, such as suturing, could be added to robotic-assisted surgical tools. Even though simple procedures, such as robotic suturing, are being attempted in laboratory settings, Naftalovich believes there is a long way to go until they are integrated into a surgical workflow.

“I think about autonomy all the time,” says Naftalovich. “But we are just not there yet.” Currently, robotic-assisted surgical tools only enhance the surgeon’s capabilities; they do not replace him.

Currently, robotic-assisted surgeries are primarily laparoscopic abdominal operations. Naftalovich is working on control systems that would allow robotic tools to be used in neurosurgeries. The primary challenge is integrating microscopic capabilities.

AMREL & Canvas Offer Android Enterprise Cloud Solutions

AMREL and Canvas, a cloud-based software service and mobile app platform that transforms how companies collect and use business information, announce a new partnership. They will provide Android­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­ enterprise solutions for the industrial market, including evaluations, inspections, data collection, reporting, dispatching, and estimation.

“Android platforms are wildly underutilized for enterprise applications, and we are going to change that,” declares Linda Talcott, AMREL’s Director of Product Marketing. “Partnering with Canvas will enable us to meet industry requirements for enterprise solutions through customized mobile computing systems.”

A critical element of this effort is AMREL’s Flexpedient® AT80, the first truly industrial-grade rugged Android tablet. Built to the rigorous environmental standards of MIL STD 810 and IP67, the AT80 is one of the few Android tablets to offer serial (RS-232) and Ethernet (RJ-45) interfaces. Built for fast customization and flexibility, the AT80 has an unparalleled range of options. Connector or application devices can be quickly integrated. Logos can be added, while a wide variety of colors are available. Visit

With no programming Canvas enables businesses to replace expensive, inefficient paper forms. Utilizing the AT80 tablet, business information is easily collected, shared and integrated into existing backend systems. Canvas offers the first business-only application store of its kind.  Servicing 30+ vertical markets, its 18,000+ pre-built, fully-customizable apps work on all mobile platforms. Each app can incorporate GPS, image capture, barcode scanning, electronic signatures, push notifications as well as access to business data such as parts catalogs, price lists, and patient records.

Together AMREL and Canvas offer complete, customizable web-based Android solutions for a multitude of industrial field applications. Working in remote locations, personnel can upload completed information to a network or even work offline.

“By combining Canvas’s capabilities with AMREL’s rugged Android platforms, we have created a convenient, flexible and cost effective solution for a vast portion of field personnel in the industrial market,” explains Ms. Talcott.

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“Canvas continues to see traction for its mobile data collection platform in industrial markets such as construction, oil and gas, public safety, mining and manufacturing,” says Andrew Cantle, Executive Vice President of Global Business Development at Canvas. “AMREL’s rugged Android tablet is an ideal product for Canvas customers with field workers operating in challenging environments who need to collect and share information in real-time. We are thrilled to announce this joint offering.”

Contact Linda Talcott at (800) 882-6735 or



Come Look at AMREL’s Latest & Greatest! 

AMREL will be at AUSA demonstrating some of our newest and most popular products.  This is an opportunity to see first hand these remarkable rugged computer platforms as well as discuss possible solutions with our experts.


For more information, call (800) 882-6735

Ask to talk to one of our Sales Engineers

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