Each morning at Memphis’ Real Time Crime Center, police officers scan walls of video feeds from hot spots around the city while computers spit out the latest crime predictions, says the MIT Technology Review. 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 says 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 “precrime” officers can arrest would-be suspects before they act. In Memphis, no one is arrested preventively. The software does aim to forecast burglaries, drug sales, gang violence, and other illegal acts before they take place. The predictive software, 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. 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 police units that are turning to crime analytics software from IBM, SAS Institute, and other vendors. They are reporting similar results. In Richmond, the homicide rate dropped 32 perent in one year after the city installed its software in 2006. Some funding comes from the Justice Department’s National Institute of Justice. 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.