July 10, 2012

Police Departments Using Software To Predict Crime

John Neumann for - Your Universe Online

A program ominously named “PredPol” purports to predict crimes based on times and locations of previous crimes, along with sociological information about criminal behavior and patterns. PredPol has been beta-tested in the Santa Cruz, California police department for the past year, and in Los Angeles police precincts for the past six months. Results have been promising, reports Heather Kelly of CNN.

Small red squares divide a map of the city, each indicating a 500-by-500-foot zone where crimes are likely to take place next. A heat-map mode shows even more precisely where cars may be stolen, houses robbed, people mugged.

Predictive-analytics software is the latest piece of policing technology working its way into law-enforcement stations around the country, think “Minority Report” without the giant screens and spider-like robots. However the technology is facing tight budgets, old-fashioned bureaucracy and a police culture still clinging to its analog ways.

“We had to try something because we were not being offered more cops,” said Zach Friend, a crime analyst with the Santa Cruz Police Department. Last year, Friend contacted researchers working on the algorithm after reading an article in the LA Times.

The Santa Cruz police department first used the software to estimate where burglaries might take place, handing printouts of the maps to officers at the start of their shifts. Later it expanded it to bike thefts, battery, assault and prowling. The city has seen a 19 percent reduction in burglaries over the past year.

While promising, police department technology is several years behind the curve. Some police cars still record video on VHS tapes, and it´s not uncommon to fill out a police report on carbon paper.

When San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee announced plans last month to develop a smartphone app that would allow officers to file police reports from the field, San Francisco Police Department chief information officer, Susan Giffin, told the Bay Citizen the department doesn´t have the budget to buy smartphones on which to run the app. San Francisco police officers only got e-mail addresses for the first time last year.

Despite many police departments being left behind with communication and information technology, new crime-fighting tools are still being developed and tested by agencies around the country.

Small wearable cameras for police and other security professionals are available on store shelves that can mount on a pair of sunglasses or a shirt collar, and they have accompanying Android and iOS apps.

In Southern Florida, police departments are using portable fingerprint scanners to ID suspects and bring up any outstanding warrants on the spot. The smartphone-sized devices cost $2,500 apiece.

There is also low-budget solutions available. Police can use Google to check their a suspects Facebook profiles to gather information. Friend says the Santa Cruz department has had more luck posting photos of wanted suspects to the official department Facebook page than through traditional police channels.

“Law enforcement agencies historically are conservative in their approach to change. That includes to adopting all kinds of technology, from computers in the cars to even radios,” said Friend.

“A new generation of police who have grown up immersed in technology will likely help ease the transition by communicating to older officers that the new tools only enhance what they already know.

Patrol officers rely on their instincts, developed over years of experience walking the same streets and patrolling familiar neighborhoods. Experts say this new technology can cut down on paperwork and make policing more efficient so the police can focus on what they do best.

“It doesn´t replace what they do,” said Friend of PredPol. “When they get into those locations, they still need to be good cops.”