Maricopa County officials know there are crime problems throughout the 9,200 square miles they're responsible for.
But the county, which is larger than four states, has never done an analysis to determine specifically what those problems are, where they have arisen and, most importantly, what is causing them.
"We're flying blind," said David Smith, county manager.
The county plans to remove that handicap by teaming with Arizona State University's criminal justice school. The resulting Community Crime Analysis Center will gather and investigate reams of data to track criminal activity from Queen Creek to Wickenburg.
Last month, the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors approved a contract with ASU and $388,000 to pay startup costs.
The center's mission is simple, said Charles Katz, the ASU criminology professor running the county project.
"If you think about crime as a disease or problem or a sickness, what we're trying to do is diagnose what the problems are and figure out what the most serious and substantive problems that the county is facing," Katz said.
Law enforcement agencies often respond to perceptions, not reliable information, when they work to quell rising crime.
"If (a doctor) were to just prescribe you an antibiotic without ever taking a thorough exam of you, you'd think, 'What kind of quack is this doctor?' " he said.
The county spends more than $800 million a year on its criminal justice operations, including police protection, jails, prosecutors and public defenders. Smith said the comparatively tiny amount spent to run the center will make all those operations more effective at solving and reducing crime.
County officials have a huge number of questions and concerns, like neighborhoods that seem to produce repeat criminal offenders, Smith said.
"How many times have they been through the revolving door?" Smith said of repeat offenders serving time in county jails. "What is there that we can do to intervene?"
Right now, they have few answers.
No one has examined the county as a whole, though police departments in several of the Valley's larger cities already do sophisticated crime analysis.
Katz said he plans to create partnerships with police and corrections agencies, court systems, health service providers and school districts. Partners would provide data and be able to use the center's analysis to address their own problems.
Neither the county nor ASU has contacted any prospective partners, Smith and Katz said.
For the center, the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office is perhaps the most critical agency because of the data it maintains on jail inmates and criminal activity in small towns and unincorporated areas.
To fully analyze county crime, Smith said it is critical that the sheriff's office provide the center accurate data on criminal activity within its jurisdiction and jail inmates. The project ASU is undertaking involves statistics that will need to come from all police agencies in the county.
The sheriff's office regularly releases data to the county. However, the office notes that it does not enter all criminal cases into its computer system, rendering several of its figures inaccurate.
Loretta Barkell, the sheriff's business services chief who also oversees data tracking, could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
Katz said that all criminal justice data has holes and that the problems with the sheriff's records won't hamper the center's work.
"There are multiple ways that we can get to what a crime problem looks like without just dealing with one source of data," Katz said.