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In Los Angeles, using statistics to predict crime

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Can police predict crime before it happens? The LAPD hopes "predictive policing" is the next great technique, using real-time data, university researcher-developed models and a healthy dose of optimism.

Can police actually predict crime before it happens?

Yes. Well, no. The answer: sort of.

The use of data to monitor crime in a city is hardly a new thing for police departments around the country, but recently, there has been a rise in what is called "predictive policing" -- that is, using statistics not only to map what already happened, but what could happen in the future.

A new report in Slate details the latest trend, which involves using data to predict "micro-trends." One major city using the technique? Los Angeles.

The LAPD recently won a $3 million grant from the U.S. Justice Department for a pilot program in predictive methodology. (They're not alone, either: Chicago's fuzz recently created a new "criminal forecasting unit" for this purpose.)

Chris Beam explains why this isn't the next coming of Minority Report:

Civil libertarians can rest easy. "This is not about predicting the behavior of a specific individual," says Jeffrey Brantingham, an anthropology professor at UCLA who works on the research team that's partnering with the LAPD. Rather, predictive policing deals with crime in the aggregate. "It's about predicting the risk of certain types of crimes in time and space," he says.

Simply, predictive policing exists to map out the patterns of the crimes that aren't random: burglaries, auto theft, even murder or rape.

At the forefront of this research are University of California Los Angeles researchers, who are working with the LAPD to develop mathematical models (.pdf) into which real-time crime data can be fed to determine where (and what type of) crime is most likely to occur next.

Will it work? Predictive policing has yet to be proven at this scale. But if nothing more, such a system entails a more efficient allocation of resources -- hardly a bad thing during a time when most police departments and cities are strapped for cash.

Time Cops [Slate]

Graphic: Andrew Bernoff/UCLA

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Andrew Nusca

Editor Emeritus

Andrew Nusca is editor of SmartPlanet and an associate editor for ZDNet. Previously, he worked at Money, Men's Vogue and Popular Mechanics magazines. He holds degrees from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and New York University. He is based in New York but resides in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure