State dependence and trajectory models

I am currently reviewing a paper that uses group based trajectory models (GBTM) – and to start this isn’t a critique of the paper. GBTM I think is a very useful descriptive tool (how this paper I am reading mostly uses it), and can be helpful in some predictive contexts as well.

It is much more difficult though to attribute a causal framework to those trajectories though. First, my favorite paper on this topic is Distinguishing facts and artifacts in group-based modeling (Skardhamar, 2010). Torbjørn in that paper simulates random data (not dissimilar to what I do here, but a few more complicated factors), and shows that purely random data will still result in GBTM identifying trajectories. You can go the other way as well, I have a blog post where I simulate actual latent trajectories and GBTM recovers them, and another example where fit stats clearly show a random effects continuous model is better for a different simulation. In real data though we don’t know the true model like these simulations, so we can only be reasonably skeptical that the trajectories we uncover really represent latent classes.

In particular, the paper I was reading is looking at a binary outcome, so you just observe a bunch of 0s and 1s over the time period. So given the limited domain, it is difficult to uncover really wild looking curves. They ended up finding a set of curves that although meet all the good fit stats, pretty much cover the domain of possibilities – one starting high an linearly sloping down, one starting low and sloping up, one flat high, one flat low, and a single curved up slope.

So often in criminology we interpret these latent trajectories as population heterogeneity – people on different curves are fundamentally different (e.g. Moffitt’s taxonomy for offending trajectories). But there are other underlying data generating processes that can result in similar trajectories – especially over a limited domain of 0/1 data.

Here I figured the underlying data the paper I am reviewing is subject to very strong state dependence – your value at t-1 is very strongly correlated to t. So here I simulate data in R, and use the flexmix package to fit the latent trajectories.

First, I simulate 1500 people over 15 time points. I assign them an original probability estimate uniformly, then I generate 15 0/1 observations, updating that probability slightly over time with an auto-correlation of 0.9. (Simulations are based on the logit scale, but then backed out into 0/1s.)

# R Code simulating state dependence 0/1
# data

# logit and inverse function
logistic <- function(x){1/(1+exp(-x))}
logit <- function(x){log(x/(1-x))}

# generate uniform probabilities
n <- 1500
orig_prob <- runif(n)

# translate to logits
ol <- logit(orig_prob)
df <- data.frame(id=1:n,op=orig_prob,ol)

# generate auto-correlated data for n = 10
auto_corr <- 0.90
tp <- 15
vl <- paste0('v',1:tp)
vc <- var(ol) #baseline variance, keep equal

for (v in vl){
   # updated logit
   rsd <- sqrt(vc - vc*(auto_corr^2))
   ol <- ol*0.9 + rnorm(n,0,rsd)
   # observed outcome
   df[,v] <- rbinom(n,1,logistic(ol))

This generates the data in wide format, so I reshape to long format needed to fit the models using flexmix, and I by default choose 5 trajectories (same as chosen in the paper I am reviewing).

# reshape wide to long
ld <- reshape(df, idvar="id", direction="long",
        varying = list(vl))

# fit traj model for binary outcomes
mod <- flexmix(v1 ~ time + I(time^2) | id,
               model = FLXMRmultinom(),
               data=ld, k=5)

rm <- refit(mod)

Now I create smooth curves over the period to plot. I am lazy here, the X axis should actually be 1-15 (I simulated 15 discrete time points).

tc <- summary(rm)@components[[1]]
pd <- data.frame(c=1,t=seq(1,tp,length.out=100))
pd$tsq <- pd$t^2

co <- matrix(-999,nrow=3,ncol=5)

for (i in 1:5){
  vlab <- paste0('pred',i)
  co[,i] <- tc[[i]][,1]

pred <- as.matrix(pd) %*% co

# plot on probability scale

These are quite similar to the curves for the paper I am reviewing, a consistent low probability (5), and a consistent high (1), a downward mostly linear slope (3), and an upward linear slope (2), and then one parabola concave down (4) (in the paper they had one concave up).

I figured the initial probability I assigned would highly impact the curve the model assigned a person to in this simulation. It ends up being more spread out than I expected though.

# distribution of classes vs original probability
ld$clus <- clusters(mod)
r1 <- ld[ld$time == 1,]
clustjit <- r1$clus + runif(n,-0.2,0.2)
plot(clustjit,r1$op) # more spread out than I thought

So there is some tendency for each trajectory to be correlated based on the original probability, but it isn’t that strong.

If we look at the average max posterior probabilities, they are OK minus the parabola group 4.

# average posterior probability
pp <- data.frame(posterior(mod))
ld$pp <- pp[cbind(1:(n*tp),ld$clus)]
r1 <- ld[ld$time == 1,]
aggregate(pp ~ clus, data = r1, mean)
#   clus        pp
# 1    1 0.8923801
# 2    2 0.7903938
# 3    3 0.7535281
# 4    4 0.6380946
# 5    5 0.8419221

The paper I am reviewing has much higher APPs for each group, so maybe they are really representing pop heterogeneity instead of continuous state dependence, it is just really hard with such observational data to tell the difference.

Managing R environments using conda

DataColada have a recent blog about their groundhog package, intended to aid in reproducible science. This is more from a perspective of “I have this historical code, how can I try to replicate that researchers environment to get the same results”. So more of a forensic task. What I am going to talk about in this post is to create an environment from the get-go that has the info necessary for others to replicate.

First before I get to that though, I have come across people critiquing open science using essentially ‘the perfect is the enemy of the good’ arguments. Sharing code is good, period. Even if there are different standards of replicability, some code is quite a bit better than no code. And scientists are not professional programmers – understanding all of this stuff takes time and training often in short supply in academia (hence me blogging about boring stuff like creating environments and using github). If this stuff is over your head, please feel free to email/ask a question and I can try to help.

At work I have to solve a very similar problem to scientific reproducibility; I need to write code in one environment (a dev environment, or sometimes my laptop), and then have that code run in a production environment. The way we do this at work is either via conda environments (for persistent environments) or docker images (for ephemeral environments). We currently are 100% python for machine learning, but you can also use the same workflow for R environments (or have a mashup of R/python).

Groundhog doesn’t really solve this all by itself – it doesn’t specify the version of R for example. (And there are issues with even using dates to try to forensically recreate environments, see the Hackernews thread.) But you can use conda directly to set up a reproducible environment from the get-go. Again, what is good for reproducible science is good for reproducing my work in different environments at my workplace.

I have a github folder to show the steps, but just here they are quite simple. First to start, in your project directory at the root, have two files. One is a requirements.txt file that specifies the R libraries you want. And this file may look like:

# This is the requirements.txt file

Conda has an annoying add r-* at the front to distinguish r packages from python ones. If there happen to be libraries you are using that are not on conda-forge (e.g. just added to CRAN, or more likely just are on github), we can solve that as well. Make a second script, here I name it packs.R, and within this R script you can install these additional packages. Here is an example installing groundhog, and my ptools package that is only on github. Each have ways you can point to a very specific version:

# This is the packs.R script
library(devtools) # for installing github packages

# Install specific commit/version from github

# Install a specific library version from CRAN
# Specifying specific version url for cran package (not on conda-forge)
gh_url <- ""

OK, so now we are ready to set up our conda environment, so from the command line (or more specifically the anaconda prompt), if you are in the root of your project, you can run something like:

conda create --name rnew
conda activate rnew
conda install -c conda-forge r-base=4.0.5 --file requirements.txt

And this installs a specific version of R, as well as those libraries in the text file. Then if you have additional libraries in the packs.R to install, you can then run:

Rscript packs.R

And conda is smart and the library defaults to installing all the R junk in the right folder (can print out .libPaths() in an R session to see where your conda environment lives). (I am more familiar with conda, so cannot comment, but likely this is exchangeable with RStudio’s renv, horses for courses.)

You may notice my requirements.txt file does not have specific versions. Often you want to be generic when you are first setting up your project, and let conda figure out the mess of version dependencies. If you want to be uber vigilant then, you can then save the exact versions of packages via overwriting your initial requirements file, something like:

conda list --export > requirements.txt

And this updated file will have everything in it, R version, conda-forge ID, etc. (although does not have the packages you installed not via conda, so still need to keep the packs.R file to be able to replicate).

I will put on the slate an example of using docker to create a totally independent environment to replicate code on. I think that is a bit over-kill for most academic projects (although is really even more isolated than this work flow). Even all this work is not 100% foolproof. conda or CRAN or the github package you installed could go away tomorrow – no guarantees in life. But again don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good – share your scientific code, warts and all!

An update on the WaPo Officer Involved Shooting Stats

Marisa Iati interviewed me for a few clips in a recent update of the WaPo data on officer involved fatal police shootings. I’ve written in the past the data are very consistent with a Poisson process, and this continues to be true.

So first thing Marisa said was that shootings in 2021 are at 1055 (up from 1021 in 2020). Is this a significant increase? I said no off the cuff – I knew the average over the time period WaPo has been collecting data is around 1000 fatal shootings per year, so given a Poisson distribution mean=variance, we know the standard deviation of the series is close to sqrt(1000), which approximately equals 60. So anything 1000 plus/minus 60 (i.e. 940-1060) is within the typical range you would expect.

In every interview I do, I struggle to describe frequentist concepts to journalists (and this is no different). This is not a critique of Marisa, this paragraph is certainly not how I would write it down on paper, but likely was the jumble that came out of my mouth when I talked to her over the phone:

Despite setting a record, experts said the 2021 total was within expected bounds. Police have fatally shot roughly 1,000 people in each of the past seven years, ranging from 958 in 2016 to last year’s high. Mathematicians say this stability may be explained by Poisson’s random variable, a principle of probability theory that holds that the number of independent, uncommon events in a large population will remain fairly stagnant absent major societal changes.

So this sort of mixes up two concepts. One, the distribution of fatal officer shootings (a random variable) can be very well approximated via a Poisson process. Which I will show below still holds true with the newest data. Second, what does this say about potential hypotheses we have about things that we think might influence police behavior? I will come back to this at the end of the post,

R Analysis at the Daily Level

So my current ptools R package can do a simple analysis to show that this data is very consistent with a Poisson process. First, install the most recent version of the package via devtools, then you can read in the WaPo data directly via the Github URL:


url <- ''
oid <- read.csv(url,stringsAsFactors = F)

Looking at the yearly statistics (clipping off events recorded so far in 2022), you can see that they are hypothetically very close to a Poisson distribution with a mean/variance of 1000, although perhaps have a slow upward trend over the years.

# Year Stats
oid$year <- as.integer(substr(oid$date,1,4))
year_stats <- table(oid$year)
mean(year_stats[1:7]) # average of 1000 per year
var(year_stats[1:7])  # variance just under 1000

We can also look at the distribution at shorter time intervals, here per day. First I aggregat the data to the daily level (including 0 days), second I use my check_pois function to get the comparison distributions:

#Now aggregating to count per day
oid$date_val <- as.Date(oid$date)
date_range <- paste0(seq(as.Date('2015-01-01'),max(oid$date_val),by='days'))
day_counts <-$date,levels=date_range)))

pfit <- check_pois(day_counts$Freq, 0, 10, mean(day_counts$Freq))

The way to read this, for a mean of 2.7 fatal OIS per day (and given this many days), we would expect 169.7 0 fatality days in the sample (PoisF), but we actually observed 179 0 fatality days, so a residual of 9.3 in the total count. The trailing rows show the same in percentage terms, so we expect 6.5% of the days in the sample to have 0 fatalities according to the Poisson distribution, and in the actual data we have 6.9%.

You can read the same for the rest of the rows, but it is mostly the same. It is only very slight deviations from the baseline Poisson expected Poisson distribution. This data is the closest I have ever seen to real life, social behavioral data to follow a Poisson process.

For comparison, lets compare to the NYC shootings data I have saved in the ptools package.

# Lets check against NYC Shootings
date_range <- paste0(seq(as.Date('2006-01-01'),max(nyc_shoot$OCCUR_DATE),by='days'))
shoot_counts <-$OCCUR_DATE,levels=date_range)))

sfit <- check_pois(shoot_counts$Freq,0,max(shoot_counts$Freq),mean(shoot_counts$Freq))

This is much more typical of crime data I have analyzed over my career (in that it deviates from a Poisson process by quite a bit). The mean is 4.4 shootings per day, but the variance is over 13. There are many more 0 days than expected (433 observed vs 73 expected). And there are many more high crime shooting days than expected (tail of the distribution even cut off). For example there are 27 days with 18 shootings, whereas a Poisson process would only expect 0.1 days in a sample of this size.

My experience though is that when the data is overdispersed, a negative binomial distribution will fit quite well. (Many people default to a zero-inflated, like Paul Allison I think that is a mistake unless you have a structural reason for the excess zeroes you want to model.)

So here is an example of fitting a negative binomial to the shooting data:

# Lets fit a negative binomial and check out
fnb <- fitdist(shoot_counts$Freq,"nbinom")

sfit$nb <- 100*mapply(dnbinom, x=sfit$Int, size=fnb$estimate[1], mu=fnb$estimate[2])
round(sfit[,c('Prop','nb')],1) # Much better overall fit

And this compares the percentages. So you can see observed 7.5% 0 shooting days, and expected 8.6% according to this negative binomial distribution. Much closer than before. And the tails are fit much closer as well, for example, days with 18 shootings are expected 0.2% of the time, and are observed 0.4% of the time.

So What Inferences Can We Make?

In social sciences, we are rarely afforded the ability to falsify any particular hypothesis – or in more lay-terms we can’t really ever prove something to be false beyond a reasonable doubt. We can however show whether empirical data is consistent or inconsistent with any particular hypothesis. In terms of Fatal OIS, several ready hypotheses ones may be interested in are Does increased police scrutiny result in fewer OIS?, or Did the recent increase in violence increase OIS?.

While these two processes are certainly plausible, the data collected by WaPo are not consistent with either hypothesis. It is possible both mechanisms are operating at the same time, and so cancel each other out, to result in a very consistent 1000 Fatal OIS per year. A simpler explanation though is that the baseline rate has not changed over time (Occam’s razor).

Again though we are limited in our ability to falsify these particular hypotheses. For example, say there was a very small upward trend, on the order of something like +10 Fatal OIS per year. Given the underlying variance of Poisson variables, even with 7+ years of data it would be very difficult to identify that small of an upward trend. Andrew Gelman likens it to measuring the weight of a feather carried by a Kangaroo jumping on the scale.

So really we could only detect big changes that swing OIS by around 100 events per year I would say offhand. Anything smaller than that is likely very difficult to detect in this data. And so I think it is unlikely any of the recent widespread impacts on policing (BLM, Ferguson, Covid, increased violence rates, whatever) ultimately impacted fatal OIS in any substantive way on that order of magnitude (although they may have had tiny impacts at the margins).

Given that police departments are independent, this suggests the data on fatal OIS are likely independent as well (e.g. one fatal OIS does not cause more fatal OIS, nor the opposite one fatal OIS does not deter more fatal OIS). Because of the independence of police departments, I am not sure there is a real great way to have federal intervention to reduce the number of fatal OIS. I think individual police departments can increase oversight, and maybe state attorney general offices can be in a better place to use data driven approaches to oversee individual departments (like ProPublica did in New Jersey). I wouldn’t bet money though on large deviations from that fatal 1000 OIS anytime soon though.

Buffalo shootings paper published

My article examining spatial shifts in shootings in Buffalo pre/post Covid, in collaboration with several of my Buffalo colleagues, is now published in the Journal of Experimental Criminology (Drake et al., 2022).

If you do not have access to that journal, you can always just email, or check out the open access pre-print. About the only difference is a supplement we added in response to reviewers, including maps of different grid cell areas, here is a hex grid version of the changes:

The idea behind this paper was to see if given the dramatic increase in shootings in Buffalo after Covid started (Kim & Phillips, 2021), they about doubled (similar to NYC), did spatial hot spots change? The answer is basically no (and I did a similar analysis in NYC as well).

While other papers have pointed out that crime increases disproportionately impact minority communities (Schleimer et al., 2022), which is true, it stands to be very specific what the differences in my work and this are saying. Imagine we have two neighborhoods:

Neighborhood A, Disadvantaged/Minority, Pre 100 crimes, Post 200 crimes
Neighborhood B,    Advantaged/Majority, Pre   1 crimes, Post   2 crimes

The work that I have done has pointed to these increases due to Covid being that relative proportions/rates are about the same (shootings ~doubled in both Buffalo/NYC). And that doubling was spread out pretty much everywhere. It is certainly reasonable to interpret this as an increased burden in minority communities, even if proportional trends are the same everywhere.

This proportional change tends to occur when crime declines as well (e.g. Weisburd & Zastrow, 2022; Wheeler et al., 2016). And this just speaks to the stickiness of hot spots of crime. Even with large macro changes in temporal crime trends, crime hot spots are very durable over time. So I really think it makes the most sense for police departments to have long term strategies to deal with hot spots of crime, and they don’t need to change targeted areas very often.


Power and bias in logistic regression

Michael Sierra-Arévalo, Justin Nix and Bradley O’Guinn have a recent article about examining officer fatalities following gunshot assaults (Sierra-Arévalo, Nix, & O-Guinn). They do not find that distance to a Level 1/2 trauma ERs make a difference in the survival probabilities, which conflicts with prior work of mine with Gio Circo (Circo & Wheeler, 2021). Justin writes this as a potential explanation for the results:

The results of our multivariable analysis indicated that proximity to trauma care was not significantly associated with the odds of officers surviving a gunshot wound (see Table 2 on p. 9 of the post-print). On the one hand, this was somewhat surprising given that proximity to trauma care predicts survival of gunshot wounds among the general public.1 On the other hand, police have specialized equipment, such as ballistic vests and tourniquets, that reduce the severity of gunshot wounds or allow them to be treated immediately.

I think it is pretty common when results do not pan out, people turn to theoretical (or sociological) reasons why their hypothesis may be invalid. While these alternatives are often plausible, often equally plausible are simpler data based reasons. Here I was concerned about two factors, 1) power and 2) omitted severity of gun shot wound factors. I did a quick simulation in R to show power seems to be OK, but the omitted severity confounders may be more problematic in this design, although only bias the effect towards 0 (it would not cause the negative effect estimate MJB find).

Power In Logistic Regression

First, MJB’s sample size is just under 1,800 cases. You would think offhand this is plenty of power for whatever analysis right? Well, power just depends on the relevant effect size, a small effect and you need a bigger sample. My work with Gio found a linear effect in the logistic equation of 0.02 (per minute driving increases the logit). We had 5,500 observations, and our effect had a p-value just below 0.05, hence why a first thought was power. Also logistic regression is asymptotic, it is common to have small sample biases in situations even up to 1000 observations (Bergtold et al., 2018). So lets see in a simple example ignoring the other covariates:

# Some upfront work
logistic <- function(x){1/(1+exp(-x))}

# Scenario 1, no covariates omitted
n <- 2000; 
de <- 0.02
dist <- runif(n,5,200)
p <- logistic(-2.5 + de*dist)
y <- rbinom(n,1,p)

# Variance is small enough, seems reasonably powered
summary(glm(y ~ dist, family = "binomial"))

Here with 2000 cases, taking the intercept from MJB’s estimates and the 0.02 from my paper, we see 2000 observations is plenty enough well powered to detect that same 0.02 effect in mine and Gio’s paper. Note when doing post-hoc power analysis, you don’t take the observed effect (the -0.001 in Justin’s paper), but a hypothetical effect size you think is reasonable (Gelman, 2019), which I just take from mine and Gio’s paper. Essentially saying “Is Justin’s analysis well powered to detect an effect of the same size I found in the Philly data”.

One thing that helps MJB’s design here is more variance in the distance parameter, looking intra city the drive time distances are smaller, which will increase the standard error of the estimate. If we pretend to limit the distances to 30 minutes, this study is more on the fence as to being well enough powered (but meets the threshold in this single simulation):

# Limited distance makes the effect have a higher variance
n <- 2000; 
de <- 0.02
dist <- runif(n,1,30)
p <- logistic(-2.5 + de*dist)
y <- rbinom(n,1,p)

# Not as much variation in distance, less power
summary(glm(y ~ dist, family = "binomial"))

For a more serious set of analysis you would want to do these simulations multiple times and see the typical result (since they are stochastic), but this is good enough for me to say power is not an issue in this design. If people are planning on replications though, intra-city with only 1000 observations is really pushing it with this design though.

Omitted Confounders

One thing that is special about logistic regression, unlike linear regression, even if an omitted confounder is uncorrelated with the effect of interest, it can still bias the estimates (Mood, 2010). So even if you do a randomized experiment your effects could be biased if there is some large omitted effect from the regression equation. Several people interpret this as logistic regression is fucked, but like that linked Westfall article I think that is a bit of an over-reaction. Odds ratios are very tricky, but logistic regression as a method to estimate conditional means is not so bad.

In my paper with Gio, the largest effect on whether someone would survive was based on the location of the bullet wound. Drive time distances then only marginal pushed up/down that probability. Here are conditional mean estimates from our paper:

So you can see that being shot in the head, drive time can make an appreciable difference over these ranges, from ~45% to 55% probability of death. Even if the location of the wound is independent of drive time (which seems quite plausible, people don’t shoot at your legs because you are far away from a hospital), it can still be an issue with this research design. I take Justin’s comment about ballistic vests as reducing death as essentially taking the people in the middle of my graph (torso and multiple injuries) and pushing them into the purple line at the bottom (extremities). But people shot in the head are not impacted by the vests.

So lets see what happens to our effect estimates when we generate the data with the extremities and head effects (here I pulled the estimates all from my article, baseline reference is shot in head and negative effect is reduction in baseline probability when shot in extremity):

# Scenario 3, wound covariate omitted
dist <- runif(n,5,200)
ext_wound <- rbinom(n,1,0.8)
ef <- -4.8
pm <- logistic(0.2 + de*dist + ef*ext_wound)
ym <- rbinom(n,1,pm)

# Biased downward (but not negative)
summary(glm(ym ~ dist, family = "binomial"))

You can see here the effect estimate is biased downward by a decent margin (less than half the size of the true effect). If we estimate the correct equation, we are on the money in this simulation run:

What happens if we up the sample size? Does this bias go away? Unfortunately it does not, here is an example with 10,000 observations:

# Scenario 3, wound covariate ommitted larger sample
n2 <- 10000
dist <- runif(n2,5,200)
ext_wound <- rbinom(n2,1,0.8)
ef <- -4.8
pm <- logistic(0.2 + de*dist + ef*ext_wound)
ym <- rbinom(n2,1,pm)

# Still a problem
summary(glm(ym ~ dist, family = "binomial"))

So this omission is potentially a bigger deal – but not in the way Justin states in his conclusion. The quote earlier suggests the true effect is 0 due to vests, I am saying here the effect in MJB’s sample is biased towards 0 due to this large omitted confounder on the severity of the wound. These are both plausible, there is no way based just on MJB’s data to determine if one interpretation is right and the other is wrong.

This would not explain the negative effect estimate MJB finds though in their paper, it would only bias towards 0. To be fair, Jessica Beard critiqued mine and Gio’s paper in a similar vein (saying the police wound location data had errors), this would make our drive time estimates be biased towards 0 as well, so if that factor may be even larger than me and Gio even estimated.

Potential robustness checks here are to simply do a linear regression instead of logistic with the same data (my graph above shows a linear regression would be fine for the data if I included interaction effects with wound location). And another would be to look at the unconditional marginal distribution of distance vs probability of death. If that is highly non-linear, it is likely due to omitted confounders in the data (I suspect it may plateau as well, eg the first 30 minutes make a big difference, but after that it flattens out, you’ve either stabilized someone or they are gone at that point).


In the case of intra-city public violence, the policy implication of drive times on survival are relevant when people are determining whether to keep open or close trauma centers. I did not publish this in my paper with Gio (you can see the estimates in the replication code), but we actually estimated counter-factual increased deaths by taking away facilities. Its marginal effect is around 10~20 homicides over the 4.5 years if you take away one of the facilities in Philadelphia. I don’t know if reducing 5 homicides per year is sufficient justification to keep a trauma facility open, but officer shootings are themselves much less frequent, and so the marginal effects are very unlikely to justify keeping a trauma facility open/closed by themselves.

You could technically figure out the optimal location to site a new trauma facility from mine and Gio’s paper, but probably a more reasonable response would be to site resources to get people to the ER faster. Philly already does scoop and run (Winter et al., 2021), where officers don’t wait for an ambulance. Another possibility though is to proactively locate ambulances to get to scenes faster (Hosler et al., 2019). Again though it just isn’t as relevant/feasible outside of major urban areas though to do that.

Often times social science authors do an analysis, and then in the policy section say things that are totally reasonable on their face, but are not supported by the empirical analysis. Here the suggestion that officers should increase their use of vests by MJB is totally reasonable, but nothing in their analysis supports that conclusion (ditto with the tourniquets statement). You would need to measure those incidents that had those factors, and see its effect on officer survival to make that inference. MJB could have made the opposite statement, since drive time doesn’t matter, maybe those things don’t make a difference in survival, and be equally supported by the analysis.

I suspect MJB’s interest in the analysis was simply to see if survival rates were potential causes of differential officer deaths across states (Sierra-Arévalo & Nix, 2020). Which is fine to look at by itself, even if it has no obviously direct policy implications. Talking back and forth with Justin before posting this, he did mention it was a bit of prodding from a reviewer to add in the policy implications. Which it goes for both (reviewers or original writers), I don’t think we should pad papers with policy recommendations (or ditto for theoretical musings) that aren’t directly supported by the empirical analysis we conduct.


  • Bergtold, J. S., Yeager, E. A., & Featherstone, A. M. (2018). Inferences from logistic regression models in the presence of small samples, rare events, nonlinearity, and multicollinearity with observational data. Journal of Applied Statistics, 45(3), 528-546.
  • Circo, G. M., & Wheeler, A. P. (2021). Trauma Center Drive Time Distances and Fatal Outcomes among Gunshot Wound Victims. Applied Spatial Analysis and Policy, 14(2), 379-393.
  • Gelman, A. (2019). Don’t calculate post-hoc power using observed estimate of effect size. Annals of Surgery, 269(1), e9-e10.
  • Hosler, R., Liu, X., Carter, J., & Saper, M. (2019). RaspBary: Hawkes Point Process Wasserstein Barycenters as a Service.
  • Mood, C. (2010). Logistic regression: Why we cannot do what we think we can do, and what we can do about it. European Sociological Review, 26(1), 67-82.
  • Sierra-Arévalo, M., & Nix, J. (2020). Gun victimization in the line of duty: Fatal and nonfatal firearm assaults on police officers in the United States, 2014–2019. Criminology & Public Policy, 19(3), 1041-1066.
  • Sierra-Arévalo, Michael, Justin Nix, & Bradley O’Guinn (2022). A National Analysis of Trauma Care Proximity and Firearm Assault Survival among U.S. Police. Forthcoming in Police Practice and Research. Post-print available at
  • Winter, E., Hynes, A. M., Shultz, K., Holena, D. N., Malhotra, N. R., & Cannon, J. W. (2021). Association of police transport with survival among patients with penetrating trauma in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. JAMA network open, 4(1), e2034868-e2034868.

ptools feature engineering vignette update

For another update to my ptools R package in progress, I have added a vignette to go over the spatial feature engineering functions I have organized. These include creating vector spatial features (grid cells, hexagons, or Voronoi polygons), as well as RTM style features on the right hand side (e.g. distance to nearest, kernel density estimates at those polygon centroids, different weighted functions ala egohoods, etc.)

If you do install the package turning vignettes on you can see it:

install_github("apwheele/ptools", build_vignettes = TRUE)

Here is an example of hexgrids over NYC (I have datasets for NYC Shootings, NYC boroughs, NYC Outdoor Cafes, and NYC liquor licenses to illustrate the functions).

The individual functions I think are reasonably documented, but it is somewhat annoying to get an overview of them all. If you go to something like “?Documents/R/win-library/4.1/ptools/html/00Index.html” (or wherever your package installation folder is) you can see all of the functions currently in the package in one place (is there a nice way to pull this up using help()?). But between this vignette and the Readme on the front github page you get a pretty good overview of the current package functionality.

I am still flip flopping whether to bother to submit to CRAN. Installing from github is so easy not sure it is worth the hassle while I continually add in new things to the package. And I foresee tinkering with it for an extended period of time.

Always feel free to contribute, I want to not only add more functions, but should continue to do unit tests and add in more vignettes.

The Big 2020 Homicide Increase in Context

Jeff Asher recently wrote about the likely 2020 increase in Homicides, stating this is an unprecedented increase. (To be clear, this is 2020 data! Homicide reporting data in the US is just a few months shy of a full year behind.)

In the past folks have found me obnoxious, as I often point to how homicide rates (even for fairly large cities), are volatile (Wheeler & Kovandzic, 2018). Here is an example of how I thought the media coverage of the 2015/16 homicide increase was overblown.

I actually later quantified this more formally with then students Haneul Yim and Jordan Riddell (Yim et al., 2020). We found the 2015 increase was akin to when folks on the news say a 1 in 100 year flood. So I was wrong in terms of it was a fairly substantive increase relative to typical year to year changes. Using the same methods, I updated the charts to 2020 data, and 2020 is obviously a much larger increase than the ARIMA model we fit based on historical data would expect:

Looking at historical data, people often argue “it isn’t as high as the early 90’s” – this is not the point though I really intended to make (it is kind of silly to make a normative argument about the right or acceptable number of homicides) – but I can see how I conflated those arguments. Looking at the past is also about understanding the historical volatility (what is the typical year to year change). Here this is clearly a much larger swing (up or down) than we would expect based on the series where we have decent US coverage (going back to 1960).

For thinking about crime spikes, I often come from a place in my crime analyst days where I commonly was posed with ‘crime is on the rise’ fear in the news, and needed to debunk it (so I could get back to doing analysis on actual crime problems, not imaginary ones). One example was a convenience store was robbed twice in the span of 3 days, and of course the local paper runs a story crime is on the rise. So I go and show the historical crime trends to the Chief and the Mayor that no, commercial robberies are flat. And even for that scenario there were other gas stations that had more robberies in toto when looking at the data in the past few years. So when the community police officer went to talk to that convenience store owner to simply lock up his cash in more regular increments, I told that officer to also go to other stores and give similar target hardening advice.

Another aspect of crime trends is not only whether a spike is abnormal (or whether we actually have an upward trend), but what causes it. I am going to punt on that – in short it is basically impossible in normal times to know what caused short term spikes absent identifying specific criminal groups (which is not so relevant for nationwide spikes, but even in large cities one active criminal group can cause observable spikes). We have quite a bit of crazy going on at the moment – Covid, BLM riots, depolicing – I don’t know what caused the increase and I doubt we will ever have a real firm answer. We cannot run an experiment to see why these increases occurred – it is mostly political punditry pinning it on one theory versus another.

For the minor bit it is worth – the time series methods I use here signal that the homicide series is ARIMA(1,1,0) – which means both an integrated random walk component and a auto-regressive component. Random walks will occur in macro level data in which the micro level data are a bunch of AR components. So this suggests a potential causal attribution to increased homicides is homicides itself (crime begets more crime). And this can cause run away effects of long upwards/downwards trends. I don’t know of a clear way though to validate that theory, nor any obvious utility in terms of saying what we should do to prevent increases in homicides or stop any current trends. Even if we have national trends, any intervention I would give a thumbs up to is likely to be local to a particular municipality. (Thomas Abt’s Bleeding Out is about the best overview of potential interventions that I mostly agree with.)


  • Wheeler, A. P., & Kovandzic, T. V. (2018). Monitoring volatile homicide trends across US cities. Homicide Studies, 22(2), 119-144.
  • Yim, H. N., Riddell, J. R., & Wheeler, A. P. (2020). Is the recent increase in national homicide abnormal? Testing the application of fan charts in monitoring national homicide trends over time. Journal of Criminal Justice, 66, 101656.

Notes for the 2019/2020 updated homicide data. 2019 data is available from the FBI page, 2020 homicide data I have taken from estimates at USA Facts and total USA pop is taken from Google search results.

R code and data to replicate the chart can be downloaded here.

Reversion in the tech stack and why DS models fail

Hackernews recently shared a story about not using an IDE, and I feel mostly the same way. Hence the title in the post – so my current workflow for when I steal some time to work on my R package ptools my workflow looks like this, using Rterm from the shell:

I don’t have anything against RStudio, I just only have so much room in my brain. Sometimes conversations at work are like a foreign language, “How are we going to test the NiFi script from Hadoop to our Kubernetes environment” or “I can pull the docker image from JFrog, but I run out of room when extracting the image on our sandbox machine. But df says we have plenty of room on all the partitions?”.

If you notice at the top the (base) in front of the shell, that is because this is within the anaconda shell as well. So if you look at many of my past blog posts (see here for one example), I am just using the snipping tool in windows to take screenshots of the shell output in interactive mode.

I am typically just writing the code in Notepad++ (as well as this blog post) – and it is quite simple to switch between interactive copy this function/code and compiling entire scripts. Here is a screenshot of R unit tests for example.

So Notepad++ has some text highlight (for both R and python), and that is nice, but honestly not that necessary. Main thing I use is the selection of brackets to make sure they are balanced. I am sure I am missing out on some nice autocomplete features that would make me more productive, and function hints in Spyder are nice for pandas functions (I mostly use google still though for that when I need it).

I do use VS Code for development work on our headerless virtual machines at work. But that is more to replicate essentially the workflow on Windows with file explorer + Notepad++ + Shell (I am not a vim ninja – what is it esc + wq:, need to look that up everytime). I fucked up one of my git repos the other day using VS Code stuff tools, and I am just using git directly anymore. (Again this means I am the problem, not VS Code!)

Why data science projects fail?

Some more random musings, but the more I get involved and see what projects work and what don’t at work, pretty much all of the failures I have come across are due to what I will call “not modeling the right thing”. That potentially covers a bit, but quite a few are simply not understanding counterfactual reasoning and selection bias.

The modeling part (in terms of actually fitting models) is typically quite easy – you do some simple but slightly theoretically informed feature engineering and feed that info into a machine learning model that is very flexible. But maybe that is the problem, people can easily fool themselves into thinking a model looks good, but because they are modeling the wrong thing it does not result in better decision making.

Even in most of the failures I have seen, selection bias is surmountable (often just requires multiple models or models on different samples of data – reduced form for the win!). So learning how to train/test split the data, and feed your data into XGboost only takes a few classes to learn. How to know the right thing to model though takes a bit more thought.

A secondary part of the failure is not learning how to translate the model outputs into actionable decisions. But the not modeling the right thing is at the start, so makes any downstream decision not work out how you want.

ptools R package

It has been on my bucket list for a bit, but I wanted to take the time to learn how to construct an R package (same as for a python package). So I crafted a package with only a few functions in it so far, ptools, short for Poisson tools.

These are a handful of functions I have blogged about over the years, including functions for various WDD tests and the variants I have blogged about (weighted harm scores, different time periods, and different area sizes).

Small sample counts in bins (which can be used for Benford’s test), or my original application was checking if a chronic offender had a propensity to commit crimes on certain days of the week.

The Poisson e-test, and a function to check whether a distribution is Poisson distributed and two more Poisson related functions as well.

I think I will add quite a few more functions in the soup before I bother submitting to CRAN. (Installing via devtools via github is quite easy, so I do not feel too bad about that.) If you have functions you think I should add just let me know. (Or just make a pull request and add them yourself!) I also need to work on unit tests, and getting github actions set up. I will probably crunch on this for a bit, and then migrate personal projects back to creating some python libraries for my other work.

I do not use R-studio, but the open book R packages has been immensely helpful. On my windows box I had to bother to add R to my system path, so I can start my R session at the appropriate directory, but besides that very minor hassle it has been quite easy to follow.

I probably have not put in my 10k total hours as a guesstimate to mastery in computer programming. I think maybe closer to 5000, and that is spread out (maybe quite evenly at this point) between python, R, SPSS (and just a little Stata). And I still learn new stuff all the time. Being in an environment where I need to work with more people has really hammered down getting environments right, and making it shareable with other teammates. And part and parcel with that is documenting code in a much more thorough manner than most of the code snippets I leave littered on this blog.

So it probably is worth me posting less, but spending more time making nicer packages to share with everyone.

I do not know really how folks do R programming for making packages. I know a little at this point about creating separate conda environments for python to provide some isolation – is there something equivalent to conda environments for R? Do the R CMD checks make this level of isolation unnecessary? Should I just be working on an isolated docker image for all development work? I do not know. I do not have to worry about that at the moment though.

Part of this self learning journey is because I am trying to start a journal aimed at criminologists where you can submit software packages. Similar to the Journal of Open Source Software or the Journal of Statistical Software, etc. For submission to there I want people to have documentation for functions, and really that necessitates having a nice package (whether in R or python or whatever). So I can’t tell people you need to make a package if I don’t do that myself!

The software papers are not a thing yet (I would call it a soft launch at this point), but I have been bugging folks about submitting papers to get a dry run of the process. If you have something you would like to submit, feel free to get in touch and we can get you set up.

Spatial analysis of NYC Shootings using the SPPT

As a follow up to my prior post on spatial sample size recommendations for the SPPT test, I figured I would show an actual analysis of spatial changes in crime. I’ve previously written about how NYC shootings appear to be going up by a similar amount in each precinct. We can do a similar analysis, but at smaller geographic spatial units, to see if that holds true for everywhere.

The data and R code to follow along can be downloaded here. But I will copy-paste below to walk you through.

So first I load in the libraries I will be using and set my working directory:


my_dir <- 'C:\\Users\\andre\\OneDrive\\Desktop\\NYC_Shootings_SPPT'

Now we just need to do alittle data prep for the NYC data. Concat the old and new files, convert the data fields for some of the info, and do some date manipulation. I choose the pre/post date here March 1st 2020, but also note we had the Floyd protests not to long after (so calling these Covid vs protest increases is pretty much confounded).

# Read in the shooting data

old_shoot <- read.csv('NYPD_Shooting_Incident_Data__Historic_.csv', stringsAsFactors=FALSE)
new_shoot <- read.csv('NYPD_Shooting_Incident_Data__Year_To_Date_.csv', stringsAsFactors=FALSE)

# Just one column off
print( cbind(names(old_shoot), names(new_shoot)) )
names(new_shoot) <- names(old_shoot)
shooting <- rbind(old_shoot,new_shoot)

# I need to conver the coordinates to numeric fields
# and the dates to a date field

coord_fields <- c('X_COORD_CD','Y_COORD_CD')
for (c in coord_fields){
  shooting[,c] <- as.numeric(gsub(",","",shooting[,c])) #replacing commas in 2018 data

# How many per year to check no funny business

# Making a datetime variable in R
shooting$OCCUR_DATE <- as.Date(shooting$OCCUR_DATE, format = "%m/%d/%Y", tz = "America/New_York")

# Making a post date to split after Covid started
begin_date <- as.Date('03/01/2020', format="%m/%d/%Y")
shooting$Pre <- ifelse(shooting$OCCUR_DATE < begin_date,1,0)

#There is no missing data

Next I read in a shapefile of the census tracts for NYC. (Pro-tip for NYC GIS data, I like to use Bytes of the Big Apple where available.) The interior has a few dongles (probably for here should have started with a borough outline file), so I do a tiny buffer to get rid of those interior dongles, and then smooth the polygon slightly. To check and make sure my crime data lines up, I superimpose with a tiny dot map — this is also a great/simple way to see the overall shooting density without the hassle of other types of hot spot maps.

# Read in the census tract data

nyc_ct <- readOGR(dsn="nyct2010.shp", layer="nyct2010") 
nrow(nyc_ct) #2165 tracts

# Dissolve to a citywide file
nyc_ct$const <- 1
nyc_outline <- gUnaryUnion(nyc_ct, id = nyc_ct$const)

# Area in square feet
total_area <- area(nyc_outline)
# 8423930027

# Turning crimes into spatial point data frame
coordinates(shooting) <- coord_fields
crs(shooting) <- crs(nyc_ct)

# This gets rid of a few dongles in the interior
nyc_buff <- gBuffer(nyc_outline,1,byid=FALSE)
nyc_simpler <- gSimplify(nyc_buff, 500, topologyPreserve=FALSE)

# Checking to make sure everything lines up

The next part I created a function to generate a nice grid over an outline area of your choice to do the SPPT analysis. What this does is generates the regular grid, turns it from a raster to a vector polygon format, and then filters out polygons with 0 overlapping crimes (so in the subsequent SPPT test these areas will all be 0% vs 0%, so not much point in checking them for differences over time!).

You can see the logic from the prior blog post, if I want to use the area with power to detect big changes, I want N*0.85. Since I am comparing data over 10 years compared to 1+ years, they are big differences, so I treat N here as 1.5 times the newer dataset, which ends up being around a suggested 3,141 spatial units. Given the area for the overall NYC, this translates to grid cells that are about 1600 by 1600 feet. Once I select out all the 0 grid cells, there only ends up being a total of 1,655 grid cells for the final SPPT analysis.

# Function to create sppt grid over areas with 
# Observed crimes

grid_crimes <- function(outline,crimes,size){
    # First creating a raster given the outline extent
    base_raster <- raster(ext = extent(outline), res=size)
    projection(base_raster) <- crs(outline)
    # Getting the coverage for a grid cell over the city area
    mask_raster <- rasterize(outline, base_raster, getCover=TRUE)
    # Turning into a polygon
    base_poly <- rasterToPolygons(base_raster,dissolve=FALSE)
    xy_df <-,long=T,xy=T)
    base_poly$x <- xy_df$x
    base_poly$y <- xy_df$y
    base_poly$poly_id <- 1:nrow(base_poly)
    # May also want to select based on layer value
    # sel_poly <- base_poly[base_poly$layer > 0.05,]
    # means the grid cell has more than 5% in the outline area
    # Selecting only grid cells with an observed crime
    ov_crime <- over(crimes,base_poly)
    any_crime <- unique(ov_crime$poly_id)
    sub_poly <- base_poly[base_poly$poly_id %in% any_crime,]
    # Redo the id
    sub_poly$poly_id <- 1:nrow(sub_poly)

# Calculating suggested sample size
total_counts <-$Pre))

# Lets go with the pre-total times 1.5
total_n <- total_counts$Freq[1]*1.5

# Figure out the total number of grid cells 
# Given the total area
side <- sqrt( total_area/total_n ) 
# 1637, lets just round down to 1600

poly_cells <- grid_crimes(nyc_simpler,shooting,1600)
print(nrow(poly_cells)) #1655


Next part is to split the data into pre/post, and do the SPPT analysis. Here I use all the defaults, the Chi-square test for proportional differences, along with a correction for multiple comparisons. Without the multiple comparison correction, we have a total of 174 grid cells that have a p-value < 0.05 for the differences in proportions for an S index of around 89%. With the multiple comparison correction though, the majority of those p-values are adjusted to be above 0.05, and only 25 remain afterwards (98% S-index). You can see in the screenshot that all of those significant differences are increases in proportions from the pre to post. While a few are 0 shootings to a handful of shootings (suggesting diffusion), the majority are areas that had multiple shootings in the historical data, they are just at a higher intensity now.

# Now lets do the sppt analysis

split_shoot <- split(shooting,shooting$Pre)
pre <- split_shoot$`1`
post <- split_shoot$`0`

sppt_diff <- sppt_diff(pre, post, poly_cells)

# Unadjusted vs adjusted p-values
sum(sppt_diff$p.value < 0.05) #174, around 89% similarity
sum(sppt_diff$p.adjusted  < 0.05) #25, 98% similarity

# Lets select out the increases/decreases
# And just map those

sig <- sppt_diff$p.adjusted < 0.05
sppt_sig <- sppt_diff[sig,]
head(sppt_sig,25) # to check out all increases

The table is not all that helpful though for really digging into patterns, we need to map out the differences. The first here is a map showing the significant grid cells. They are somewhat tiny though, so you have to kind of look close to see where they are. The second map uses proportional circles to the percent difference (so bigger circles show larger increases). I am too lazy to do a legend/scale, but see my prior post on a hexbin map, or the sp website in the comments.

# Making a map

circ_sizes <- sqrt(-sppt_sig$diff_perc)*3


# check out
# For nicer maps/legends/etc.

So the increases appear pretty spread out. We have a few notable ones that made the news right in the thick of things in Manhattan, but there are examples of grid cells that increased scattered all over the boroughs. I am not going to the trouble here, but if I were a crime analyst working on this, I would export this to a format where I could zoom into the local areas and drill down into the specific incidents. You can do that either in ArcGIS, or more directly in R by creating a leaflet map.

So if folks have any better ideas for testing out crime increases I am all ears. At some point will give the R package sparr a try. (Here you could treat pre as the controls and post as the cases.) I am not a real big fan of over interpreting changes in kernel density estimates though (they can be quite noisy, and heavily influenced by the bandwidth), so I do like the SPPT analysis by default (but it swaps out a different problem with choosing a reasonable grid cell size).