Each morning at the Real Time Crime Center in Memphis, Tennessee, police officers scan walls of video feeds from hot spots around the city while computers spit out the latest crime predictions. A red dot flashing on a map signals that a crime may happen on that block soon. If a commanding officer thinks the software is correct, he’ll send a patrol ahead of time to catch the criminal red-handed. Better yet, the police presence may prevent the crime from happening at all.
Memphis police director Larry Godwin assures the public that this isn’t a real-life version of Minority Report. In Steven Spielberg’s sci-fi thriller, psychic mutants immersed in goo foresee criminal activity so that Tom Cruise and his “precrime” officers can arrest would-be suspects before they act. In Memphis, no one is arrested preventively. But the software does aim to forecast burglaries, drug sales, gang violence, and other illegal acts before they take place, says Godwin.
The predictive software, which is called Blue CRUSH (for “criminal reduction utilizing statistical history”), works by crunching crime and arrest data, then combining it with weather forecasts, economic indicators, and information on events such as paydays and concerts. The result is a series of crime patterns that indicate when and where trouble may be on the way. “It opens your eyes within the precinct,” says Godwin. “You can literally know where to put officers on a street in a given time.” The city’s crime rate has dropped 30 percent since the department began using the software in 2005.
Memphis is one of a small but growing number of U.S. and U.K. police units that are turning to crime analytics software from IBM, SAS Institute, and other vendors. So far, they are reporting similar results. In Richmond, Virginia, the homicide rate dropped 32 percent in one year after the city installed its software in 2006.
Some of the funding for such setups is now coming from the National Institute of Justice (NIJ), the R&D arm of the U.S. Justice Department. Other funding is coming from nonprofit groups. This year, the nonprofit RAND Corporation teamed up with the Chicago police department to apply predictive analytics to gang behavior.
The increase in funding may help push more big police departments to take up such initiatives, says Jeffrey Brantingham, an associate professor of anthropology at the University of California, Los Angeles, who leads a research team of UCLA academics and Los Angeles police officers that is seeking a $3 million NIJ grant to test predictive policing models.