Each morning, Richmond Police Lt. Andre Hill turns on his computer and looks at where crime is most likely to occur in the city. “If you look here, there’s five red boxes in the iron triangle for the day shift,” Hill said, while pointing at his computer screen.
Each box represents a two and a half square block area where burglaries, car thefts, and robberies are most likely to take place. RPD officers in patrol spend at least 40 minutes per shift in each of the boxes. “They park their car, get out, walk around, and engage with the community,” Hill said.
Theoretically, their presence will suppress crime before it happens.
The computer system is called predictive policing. It’s an algorithm—similar to one used to predict aftershocks from an earthquake—that analyzes data and forecasts the likelihood of crimes occurring in certain areas.
“With it, we can say that between 6 o’clock and 10 o’clock at night, this is where crime is most likely to occur,” RPD Captain Mark Gagan said. “With that information we can be much more focused.”
RPD began using the system in June, when they signed a 3-year, $150,000 contract. While it’s too soon to definitively say whether or not it has been effective, the system has been widely praised both within the department, and by other California police agencies.
The Santa Cruz police department implemented the system in 2011, and since then overall crime has declined significantly—the only way to measure the system’s efficacy since it’s meant to prevent crime from occurring. However, according to police records, calls for service and arrests have increased, the latter by 56 percent.
“From a statistician’s point of view you wouldn’t expect that,” Santa Cruz Deputy Chief Steven Clark said. With more calls for service and more arrests, logically one would expect more crime.
However, the data suggests that police are increasingly in the right place at the right time. “It seems like the program’s working, especially when you look at the surrounding communities that are dealing with increases in crime,” Clark said.
The LAPD began using predictive policing in 2012, and results have been positive.
In Richmond, vehicle theft is down 23 percent and burglaries are down 10 percent since this time last year, according to police records. The department hopes the system will help ease a recent spike in robberies, which have increased by 24 percent since last year.
However, Captain Gagan said the system isn’t a panacea. “Nothing is ever going to replace an officer’s ability to listen to people, talk to people, and connect to people,” he said.
The department is debating whether predictive policing maps would be more useful if they were publicly available, allowing residents to see where they’re most likely to become a victim of crime. “Having community looking out for each other and knowing what’s going on in the neighborhood is much more powerful than having police officers at the right place at the right time,” Gagan said.
However, because the technology is still new to the department, it has yet to decide what to do about making maps available to the public.