Online Exclusive

Massachusetts Police Turn to Software to Battle Crime

HAVERHILL, Mass. -- Call it the police department's crystal ball.

Police in Haverhill have started using a relatively new cloud-based crime prediction program that forecasts when and where crimes are likely to occur. Called Predictive Policing, or "PredPol," is just getting its start in Haverhill, though the software is already in use in Los Angeles, Atlanta and Seattle.

"We want to go where we think crime will be so we can stop it," police Chief Alan DeNaro said.

With fewer officers than comparably sized communities, police say they need to use every available tool to work as efficiently and effectively as possible.

Haverhill was the 15th most violent community in Massachusetts in 2012, as measured by violent crimes per 10,000 residents, according to figures just released by the FBI. The most violent Massachusetts communities in 2012, according to the FBI review, were Chelsea, Brockton, New Bedford, Fall River, Springfield and Lawrence.

Haverhill's police patrolmen's union has also raised alarms that violent crime and gang activity is on the upswing, and they are understaffed to deal with it. However, both the mayor and police chief have said their statistics show that crime overall has been going down in recent years.

DeNaro said his department used about $30,000 in drug crime forfeiture money to pay for one year's use of PredPol. After that, it will cost the department about $25,000 annually.

"If I wasn't confident that this will help the city I would not invest in it," DeNaro said. "It will help us use our limited resources more efficiently."

"We have to do things smarter and be more resourceful," he added.

Donnie Fowler, director of business development for PredPol, recently met with police leaders in Haverhill to explain how his company's program works.

Fowler told DeNaro and several staff members that the system relies on the input of three forms of data: Crime type, crime location and crime time. From that data, the program applies mathematical formulas that generate predictions that are translated onto Google maps as distinctive red boxes representing areas as small as 500-by-500 square feet.

Fowler said the program is twice as accurate as human analysts in predicting when and where crimes such as burglary, motor vehicle theft, breaking and entering and drug crimes will occur and identifies precise locations for the most effective use of police resources.

"We take constant data, build on criminal theory and the way criminals behave as they are creatures of habit," Fowler said. "As new crimes are recorded, that data is pushed so we update our system."

According to PredPol's website, personal information about victims, offenders or law enforcement is not collected by the program.

DeNaro said the first test of PredPol's effectiveness will take place six months from now, when he compares the crime rate at that time to the current crime rate.

"Right now it's all guessing," DeNaro said.

Mayor James Fiorentini said there are several new programs police have begun or are about to begin to identify parts of the city where crime is prevalent and increase police patrols in those areas. Those programs include PredPol, but, the mayor has also said more foot and bike police patrols will be coming soon.

At his State of the City speech two weeks ago, Fiorentini said the city will be hiring 11 more police officers over the next few months.

Copyright 2014 - The Eagle-Tribune, North Andover, Mass.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service