To Catch a Thief

High-level data analysis is helping police spot crimes -- sometimes before they happen.
April 1, 2008
Ellen Perlman
By Ellen Perlman  |  Former columnist
Ellen Perlman was a GOVERNING staff writer and technology columnist.

It's the beginning of the end of the ink-stained bank robber. New technology in use in banks allows police to nail a thief with much more finesse than chasing the guy who has been Jackson-Pollocked by an exploded dye pack. In a recent bank robbery in Ohio, a bank employee slipped a global positioning device into the cash. Law enforcement tracked the bank bandit as he headed toward Cincinnati from Evendale. They set up a roadblock and pulled the suspect from his stopped truck.

Crime-fighting technologies continue to get more sophisticated and precise. Police departments use shot spotters to glean information about where guns were fired. A database is in the works in New York City to track guns used in crimes. Computers, cameras and geographic information systems are common in cop cars. Surveillance cameras watch the streets, saving manpower until it's needed. And lately, several cities have been using high-level data analysis to predict where crimes will occur.

The technology that Richmond, Virginia, uses to analyze and predict where future ones may happen next is providing a crime-fighting boost to police. Officers believe it has contributed to a stunning drop in crime in a city that years ago developed a reputation as one of the country's most dangerous. In 2007, the number of homicides dropped from 81 to 55. That represented Richmond's lowest murder rate in a quarter of a century.

The plummeting crime rate appears to be due in part to aggressive police work that includes sophisticated computing and analytics that help the department predict where crimes will happen. Officers amass the usual information from emergency calls and police reports but also compile information about paydays, weather, demographics, sporting events and traffic. Then they look for patterns. For instance, they could see that robbers were hitting hard in Hispanic neighborhoods on payday.

Police work always has been about connecting the dots. The connections were hard to see when the dots were on paper, but Richmond now has them on a digital map. Officers plug in addresses where crimes have occurred and plot points electronically, "geo-coding" to allow visual information to produce "aha" moments where patterns emerge. Because these predictive analytics allow Richmond police to anticipate when and where certain types of crimes occur, commanders move officers around to the city's advantage. Since using the technology, the city has seen major crime drop around 20 percent a year.

Other municipalities are watching Prince George's County. While the Maryland suburb of Washington, D.C., will be rolling out a predictive system, its police department already has the ability to give officers and command staff nearly real-time crime data. Reports about arrests and other crime information are refreshed several times per hour. Officers can get statistical reports in minutes. Previously, the information could be as much as a day old. Data analysts would arrive in the wee hours of the morning to compile daily numbers that wouldn't be updated for another 24 hours.

Houston is one of the most recent to announce a push toward analyzing crime data in order to predict hot spots and give key information to responding officers before they arrive on the scene. The city spent $3 million for software that tracks suspect information and the history of criminal activity in neighborhoods. "It's not a substitute for having an officer respond," Mayor Bill White told a local TV news show, "but it will help us make the system better, and catch the bad guys."

There is one downside to technology. While high-tech tools help cops fight crime, all the personal gear citizens carry around now may be creating a crime wave of its own. In 2005, around the time iPods became popular and 40 million were in circulation, violent crime, including muggings, rose dramatically. The trend continued countrywide in 2006. By this time, there were 90 million iPods and other MP3 players in use on the streets, in subways and in coffee bars.

A senior research associate at the Urban Institute's Justice Policy Center theorizes that there is a link between crime and expensive electronic gizmos. John Roman points out that iPods and other high-status gear are not only prevalent but obvious. If you own an iPod, and are using it, white wires hang down from your ears. It's much more noticeable and easy to grab than, say, goods in a parked car. The opportunity for violence increases exponentially, Roman suggests, when a thief can go after goods worn by someone.

Whether or not Roman's theory is correct, it is one more piece of data to throw into the electronic stew for computer analysis.

Ellen Perlman
Ellen Perlman | Former columnist |