UNO researchers study new approach in reporting suspicious activity with chatbot

Published: Oct. 8, 2021 at 5:34 PM CDT
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OMAHA, Neb. (WOWT) - It’s the latest effort to stop violence before it starts and it involves us reporting suspicious activity to a computer.

The goal is to get critical incident reporting to those that need it quickly.

“Virginia Tech is a great example where there was a lot of people that had information about that shooter, but they didn’t communicate it to one another. Trying to overcome those silos of communication is what we’re trying to work toward,” Captain Kevin Geiger of the Sarpy County Sheriff’s Department said.

Mass shootings at Virginia Tech, Columbine, Sandy Hook, and even Von Maur may never have happened had an efficient suspicious activity reporting system been in place. Researchers here in the Omaha-metro will study a new approach to prevention using a chatbot.

This week, Doctors Joel Elson and Erin Kearns of UNO were awarded a two-year, $714,000 federal grant. They are developing a crime reporting system in partnership with the Sarpy County Sheriff’s Department.

But instead of reporting suspicious activity to a person, you’ll share it with a computer.

“People who are less trusting of law enforcement or view law enforcement to be less legitimate indicates a lower willingness to report anything in general but also people aren’t really sure what needs to be reported,” Dr. Kearns said.

“Computer systems are trusted differently than people and so leveraging those differences and continuing to facilitate the trust that an individual may have in a computer system could allow for information to be explored and information to be shared that otherwise go completely in the dark,” Dr. Elson said. “A chatbot is a computer program that allows people to converse with it naturally.”

Once an anonymous report comes in, the bot will feed the info into a network of law enforcement, mental health professionals, schools, and other entities to build an action plan for a person that has the potential for violence.

“With targeted violence, there are lots of different dots and lots of people have that information connecting those dots together to give us a picture of what this person is capable of and then try to interdict before something bad happens,” Captain Griger said.

This is one of 37 prevention-oriented research programs selected for the grants by the Department of Homeland Security to prevent targeted violence and terrorism.

The grants total $20 million.

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