Mapping crime before it happens
09:44 24 January 2013
Futuristic technology which predicts where crime will hit is being trialled in north Kent, Anna Dubuis reports
Predicting the future is standard practice for weather forecasters, economists, think tanks and business.
Now the police are finding their own way of mapping crime before it even happens- reminiscent of the Tom Cruise film, Minority Report.
The software, PredPol - which stands for predictive policing - has been brought to north Kent straight from California for its first trials in the UK.
In Santa Cruz and Los Angeles, where the software was first tested in 2011, crime dropped by 27 per cent and 12 per cent respectively in the first six months.
It began as an academic project seven years ago involving mathematicians, social scientists and an anthropology professor whose goal was to understand how crime hot spots occur.
They found that by using a mathematical algorithm similar to one for predicting earthquake aftershocks they could create predict where crimes would happen.
Speaking to The Reporter from Santa Cruz, Jeff Brantingham, anthropology professor at the University of California, explains: “When there is an earthquake you see a lot about how it produces aftershocks. In general they occur near in time and place to a main shock. Crime is very much the same. It you look at crime hotspots they appear quickly and spread around. When a burglar breaks into a house it makes the chance of crime occurring close by much more likely.”
The PredPol software maps years of past crime data and is updated daily with the location, time and type of crime committed.
From this it creates prediction boxes of precise 500 sq ft zones which are listed in priority order as to where crimes are most likely to occur, which is then delivered to the smart phones, tablets and PCs of police officers who use it to make decisions on where to deploy.
Brantingham explains the technology is more sophisticated than just highlighting an area around a recent crime.
“If you were to look at the last seven days of crime you could see a pattern but you can’t put seven years of offences on one map. Some crimes are on-offs but others are not. PredPol has the advantage of analysing everything that has happened in the last seven years and can select the crimes which are likely to produce new offences,” he says.
Steve Clark, deputy chief of police at Santa Cruz Police Department, testifies to this.
He told The Reporter: “Every officer knows where they can go on their beat and likely make an arrest but a predictable habit can form. Sometimes that primal policing sense is right and sometimes it is not. PredPol doesn’t replace an officer’s intuition but rather adds science to those skills.”
One problem raised is the ambiguity over whether police could stop and search someone if they are in the location flagged up by PredPol, but Brantingham stresses: “This isn’t Minority Report. That’s about producing who, this is about where and when. Just because PredPol puts officers in the right place, legal obligations remain the same.”
Last week, Ch Insp Philip Painter, from Gravesham division of Kent Police, introduced the technology to Gravesham councillors at a crime disorder meeting.
They were sceptical- one worried that it would leave rural areas without police cover, another was concerned that it would mean job cuts.
However Ch Insp insisted that rural areas do still have crime hot spots and would be patrolled and that the technology would not lead to any cuts.
Kent Police were impressed by the drop in offences in California and invested £125,000 into a trial across north Kent which will, if proven successful, be used across the county.
Ch Insp Painter remembers patrolling Gravesend’s Dickens Estate 15 years ago and using pin maps to understand crime dynamics.
He is optimistic: “PredPol is easy to use and easy to brief. A 15-minute patrol shows to have a sustained impact for up to two hours.
“It is unrealistic putting an officer on every corner. We have to be more sophisticated.”