KMWorld Magazines Features PredPol
KM on the crime beat
In Santa Cruz, Calif., the police force has successfully reduced crime by nearly 20 percent in the past year, aided in part by a software product called PredPol, which predicts areas where crime is most likely to occur. “We knew that getting more officers on staff was not a realistic option,” says Zach Friend, crime analyst for the Santa Cruz Police Department (SCPD). “We were looking for a way to allocate our resources more efficiently.”
In exploring software solutions that might help support resource allocation decisions, Friend came across a research report on a project that had brought together an interdisciplinary team, including an anthropologist and mathematicians, to develop models that reflected patterns of crime. “The software had been tested on a sample of data but not in an operational setting,” Friend says. “We partnered with the research group to find out whether the software could be effective in a real-world setting, using the police reports in our records management system.”
Before moving forward with the effort, the SCPD tested the system by providing five years of information to PredPol and challenging it to predict a sixth year, for which the department already had information. “The software predicted a significant percentage of crime for that year, so we decided to incorporate it into our operations,” Friend adds.
The SCPD spent about six months working with researchers to determine what the output of the analyses should look like, and launched the PredPol system in fall 2011. The software tracks residential and commercial burglaries, auto break-ins and auto theft.
Likely “hot spots”
Before each shift starts, a patrol sergeant or supervisor logs onto the system and the screen shows 15 “hot spot” locations outlined in a red box. A map is printed out that officers take with them on their patrol. “We have 13 square miles to cover,” Friend says. “The software identifies the zones where we are most likely to have problems and therefore lets us use our resources better.” Police reports are automatically run though the PredPol algorithm every hour to keep the system updated.
In any given hour, an officer has approximately 15 minutes that is not dedicated to an activity such as responding to a 911 call or conducting pre-scheduled patrols. During that time, the officers move into the red box areas. In several dozen cases, that process has produced arrests by officers who were in the right place at the right time. However, the ultimate goal is to prevent crimes from occurring in the first place. “The arrests provided good feedback that the system was working,” Friend explains, “but PredPol also reduced crime through prevention.”
PredPol, a SaaS product, eliminates the need for capital investment in software and is less expensive than a full-fledged business intelligence platform. It can be extended, however, and has the capability to perform additional analytics. Officers are now requesting that additional types of crime be built into the system, so the SCPD plans to expand its analyses into street crimes such as robberies and assaults.
PredPol achieves a delicate balance between sophistication and usability. “It was important not to increase the complexity of what officers already had to do on the street,” says Jeff Brantingham, cofounder of PredPol and chief of R&D. “Although the mathematics are complex, the ‘hot spot’ boxes tell the officers in a straightforward way where they can have the greatest impact.” The several hundred inquiries that the company has received from law enforcement agencies reflect the need for an affordable and effective solution to the challenge of reducing crime at a time when resources are tight.