Solving Cities

How one city stops crime before it happens

Posting in Cities

In Santa Cruz, Calif. police are testing a tool that is helping them to predict the spots in the city where a crime is most likely to take place.

Imagine if police had secret powers to be at the scene of a crime before it happened. With that foresight they would be able to transform what would have been a crime scene into your average peaceful street, neighborhood, or park just by being in the right place at the right time.

In Santa Cruz, Calif. the police might not have superhero-like powers but they do have a tool that is helping them to predict the spots in the city where a crime is most likely to take place. The New Scientist has details:

Rather than predicting who will commit crimes, like the fictitious "precrime" system from the 2002 film Minority Report, the software that the Santa Cruz police department has recently started field-testing looks at where crime might be committed.

It uses the locations of past incidents to flag up likely future crime scenes. Police can then target their patrols on these areas, in the hope that their presence might stop the predicted crimes from happening at all. At the very least, they will be on the spot to help victims and make arrests.

The program has been built by mathematician George Mohler, at Santa Clara University in California, and his colleagues. They noted that some crimes follow potentially predictable patterns. One burglary, for example, tends to trigger others nearby in the next few days, rather like aftershocks from an earthquake (see graph). In 2010, Mohler's team turned equations used to predict aftershocks into the basis for a program that uses the dates and times of reported crimes to predict when and where the "aftercrimes" will occur.

The crime predictor algorithm will able soon get a test run in Los Angeles. If successful, it's a tool that could be implemented in other cities.

It's a fascinating concept. As cities are cutting back on public services, this is something that could increase efficiency with more targeted patrolling. And if it's effective at reaching its ultimate goal of stopping crime before it happens, it could help relieve the strain on our penal system.

But before we get too excited, keep in mind that good data is a essential for the algorithm to be effective. There can be problems with prejudicial data or just insufficient resources to accurately gather all the data that is needed. Even the deputy chief of police in Santa Cruz says, "You can screw this up by not getting a piece of data right."

But if the trials are successful, is this what the future of policing in our cities looks like?

Photo: nocklebeast/Flickr

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Tyler Falk

Contributing Editor

Tyler Falk freelance journalist based in Washington, D.C. Previously, he was with Smart Growth America and Grist. He holds a degree from Goshen College. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure