Predict and serve

Recently a Santa Cruz, Calif. police officer noticed a suspicious subject lurking around parked cars. When the officer attempted to make contact, the subject ran. The officer gave chase; when he caught the subject he learned he was a wanted parolee...


Recently a Santa Cruz, Calif. police officer noticed a suspicious subject lurking around parked cars. When the officer attempted to make contact, the subject ran. The officer gave chase; when he caught the subject he learned he was a wanted parolee. Because there was an outstanding warrant for his arrest, the subject was taken to jail.

The arrest marks just another day in the life of a police officer out to predict and serve. While officers have long taken an oath to protect and serve, the officer in the above scenario was patrolling the area in question using new technology that enabled him to predict crime hot spots and take action before a crime took place.

Though this case casts a public view on the technology’s ability to garner arrests, PredPol, named by Time Magazine as one of the Top 50 Inventions of 2011, is actually meant to reduce crime through increased police presence and deterrence, says Zach Friend, a crime analyst with the Santa Cruz PD.

While arrests occur because officers are in zones the software identified as crime hot spots, Friend explains the software’s true utility is in crime deterrence. “The officer [in the scenario] went into a residential area he normally wouldn’t have been in and saw the individual coming out of a car that clearly didn’t belong to him and he made an arrest,” he says. “But how many people didn’t suffer their cars being broken into because of that officer’s presence?”

The statistics, he adds, speak for themselves. When Santa Cruz implemented the predictive policing software in 2011, the city of nearly 60,000 was on pace to hit a record number of burglaries. But by July burglaries were down 27 percent when compared with July 2010.

“We saw the same thing in the first six months of 2012 compared to 2011,” Friend adds. “PredPol helps reduce crime by increasing police presence.”

The Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) is the largest police agency to embrace predictive policing, which crunches crime data in real-time to determine where to send officers. To date, the LAPD has implemented the technology in five divisions covering 130 square miles.

The valley’s Foothill Division, the first LAPD division to implement the technology, reports results that have turned even the most skeptical of skeptics into believers. “We saw a 12-percent reduction in targeted crimes during the six-month pilot. And we saw a 26 percent reduction in burglary alone,” says Capt. Sean Malinowski, who has worked with University of California–Los Angeles (UCLA) on the project since it was nothing but a gleam in a mathematician’s eye.

Crime factors

PredPol is the culmination of a seven-year study by a team of UCLA social sciences and mathematics researchers seeking to study factors that drive crime pattern formation. Anthropology professor Jeff Brantingham says researchers aimed to look into the factors that contribute to crime hot spots.

He explains, “Crime hot spots are very dynamic. In some areas, hot spots remain constant. But a lot of times [they] come and go, or spread, or go on for awhile and then disappear.”

“But humans are not nearly as random as we think,” Brantingham continues. “Crime is a physical process, and if you can explain how offenders move and how they mix with victims, you can understand an incredible amount.”

Their research uncovered three key factors driving these apparent complexities:

Repeat victimization. That is, if someone is victimized today, they’re likely to be victimized again in the future. Brantingham explains it’s like returning to a restaurant to eat there again after a positive dining experience the week before. “A burglar might say, ‘Wow, that was an easy mark, let’s go back there tomorrow.’ And then you see a cluster of crime,” he says.

A crime next door might put neighbors at risk for similar crimes. If the house next door is broken into, the neighbor’s house may be next because those living near each other generally share the same economic and social status.

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