Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Predictive policing

Predictive policing is a phrase that is beginning to gather more and more usage in our field. It will be in the news even more, because it is being touted as the next big thing. I was among a group of practitioners and researchers invited to Los Angeles late last week by the National Institute of Justice for a conference on predictive policing. I served on a three-chief panel with Jim Bueermann from Redlands, CA, and George Gascon, from San Francisco to discuss what chief's expect to emerge from predictive policing.

In a nutshell, predictive policing is the practice of using data and analysis to predict future police problems and implement strategies to either prevent or ameliorate those problems. It borrows from the principals of problem-oriented policing, information-led policing, hot spot policing, community policing, situational crime prevention, evidence-based policing, and intelligence-led policing. Can you tell that we have a penchant for catch phrases in policing?

What distinguishes predictive policing from other paradigms is the emphasis on using analysis to anticipate problems--rather than responding to problems after they have occurred. At the simplest level, this might mean using crime analysis to determine the likely patterns of drive-by shootings, then deploying police officers to the areas and at the times these are most likely to occur in order to preempt the crime. At a more complex level, it might mean watching the trends in the spot copper price, and implementing strategies (such as legislation and scrap business monitoring) to reduce the marketability of stolen copper in advance of an anticipated spike in thefts.

None of this is exactly new, but predictive policing is gaining some steam because of the huge influx of data into police work, and our increasing ability to use these data to not only find existing trends and patterns, but to anticipate new ones. We know, for example, well in advance what the proliferation of a hot product like portable GPS devices will mean. When a new nightclub is planned, we can anticipate the impact on crime and police problems. You could build a pretty effective mathematical model to anticipate what happens when 500,000 square feet of retail space is developed, or when 600 two bedroom apartment units are built, because we have lots and lots of data about what goes on in similar situations.

Business has been using these analytics and models for a long time to make decisions: it's not just chance that there's a new Walgreen's on the corner, and Starbucks didn't just throw a dart at the map when deciding where to locate that new store. In policing, we are just starting to use our data to anticipate police problems. We are babes in the woods compared to the private sector.

Whether the predictive policing moniker persists and becomes part of the fabric of policing remains to be seen. There are all sorts of labels out there, some are a flash in the pan, some with great staying power. You might see articles, books, grant solicitations, and conferences galore on predictive policing. Conversely, the term might fade from use rather quickly. Regardless of whether the label gets sticky or not, these concepts are here to stay. Police departments will continue to improve in their ability to analyze data and formulate strategies based on these analyses.


Anonymous said...

Does preventing crime by regularly keeping your cell space ahead of need (building more cells even before you need them), so that you can stop plea-dealing, under-sentencing, and early-releasing violent & predatory criminals (thus getting them locked up as soon as possible and keeping them locked up for as long as possible) figure into any of these strategies for crime prevention? When you've got plenty of extra cell space open, it sure removes the need to kick thugs loose, simply to make cell space for more thugs.

On a related note, here's a happy new sight - the new CJ under construction. Too bad it's not two or three times as large, but you can't have everything.

Anonymous said...

aagghhh 1984 is here precontacts don't necessarily mean that you are stopping crime because from my experience it feeds further distrust of police, how about we try just leaving people alone until THEY HAVE ACTUALLY DONE SOMETHING!

Anonymous said...

Anonymous 8:02 So you are saying it would better that we wait until AFTER you've been beaten and robbed, rather than contacting the guy hanging out in the dark alley late at night and trying to find out what he's doing? Or you'd rather we wait until AFTER your car has been broken into and all your precious belongings have been stolen, rather than trying to put proactive patrol in place to keep it from happening? Why? Isn't the goal to prevent the crime from happening, if possible?

Anonymous said...

8:02 I read the post and read it again. I don't think having a police presence in an area with a statistical probability of having criminal activity translates into negative police contact. How about just having more visibility in the area?

Jerry Ratcliffe said...

And I think the anonymous comment at 8.02am nicely encapsulates why predictive policing will probably never survive as a term. And perhaps it shouldn't.

As the chief pointed out, none of what was happening in LA was exactly new and easily falls under the umbrella of 'intelligence-led policing'. Mind you, not that ILP is a popular phrase (and I have quite a bias that way), but it should be and at least ILP has more theoretical and evidential justification that predictive policing. :-)

Anonymous said...

It's possible that 8:02 has screened Minority Report one time too many.

Tom Casady said...


Possible, but I think that's the way the phrase "predictive policing" tends to strike a fair number of people. It has nothing to do with that, but I understand the initial reaction.

Anonymous said...

I wonder if tools like these could be used somehow to predict mass murders like the Columbine,VonMaur, VaTech and Ft. Hood incidents?

All the tools in the world won't help if being Politically Correct guidelines have to be followed.

Just My Opinion,
Gun Nut

Steve said...

Perhaps 8:02 isn't worried about being robbed, but rather, being able to rob (without police interference).

Just a thought.

Anonymous said...

I don't think 'ameliorate' is a real word.

Anonymous said...

We all predict crime in our daily lives. Lock our cars, not leave precious items in it, not go near dark alleys, close our garage doors, stranger danger, it's life. It's understandable a police department should see trends too. Our citizens have a duty to watch overreaching of the government also into our freedoms. So important it is engraved in stone on our capital for all to see.

Steve said...

Gun Nut:

I think you're dreaming.


a·me·lio·rate ( …-m¶l“y…-r³t”) v. tr. intr. a·me·lio·rat·ed a·me·lio·rat·ing a·me·lio·rates 1. To make or become better; improve. See note at improve . [Alteration of meliorate ]


Right on! More jails, less crime. No doubt about it. Most of those arrested for anything are not first-time offenders. If they'd been put in jail to start with, they wouldn't have had the opportunity to strike again.