Predictive Policing: What is It and Does It Work?


Predictive analytics are all the rage these days in everything from professional sports to corporate marketing. It has proved itself a viable asset in a limited number of applications. As such, predictive analytics is finding a home in areas we would otherwise not expect. Take policing, for example.

Predictive policing is an emerging trend among urban police departments working with limited resources. It is something that the Dallas Police Department is now in the early stages of developing. The Dallas PD is hoping that their new computerized crime-fighting tool, fashioned after similar tools in Los Angeles and Kansas City, will help reduce crime in the city.

It is no surprise that predictive policing has its critics and proponents alike. That certainly is the case in Dallas. Whether or not it becomes the norm across the country likely rests in the success or failure of early adopters. For that alone, all eyes are now on Dallas.

What is Predictive Policing?

Predictive policing is a means of doing police work based on data analytics. Let us briefly shift to the commercial sector for purposes of illustration that might make it easier to understand the concept. Let’s talk about predictive analytics and website development.

Every time you visit a website, software embedded in that site tracks what you do. It tracks how long you are on the site, the exact pages you navigate to, whether or not you buy something, and where you go immediately after leaving the site. Web developers use all of this data to predict the movement and actions of future visitors. Then they modify their websites to increase the likelihood of converting future visitors into paying customers.

Predictive policing does much the same thing. It relies on an unending stream of data that tracks where crime occurs, when it occurs, who is committing it, and the types of crimes being committed. Collected data is analyzed and used to predict when and where future crime will occur.

Making use of the data is a matter of placing police patrols in areas where crimes are more likely to occur. Police departments can even fine-tune when to increase and decrease patrols based on seasons, weather conditions, and other factors. The goal is to place patrols in the right spots, at the right times, in order to prevent crime before it occurs.

Does Predictive Policing Work?

The jury is still out on predictive policing even though a number of cities have been using it for some time. According to the big data experts at Rock West Solutions, the difficulty in assessing the success of predictive policing is the fact that criminals do not cooperate.

Again, let us go back to the example of visiting a website. You are not purposely trying to avoid data collection when reading the daily news headlines. In fact, you probably don’t give it a second thought. Thus, you wander around the web while freely giving web developers a ton of information they can use to their advantage.

Criminals don’t work that way. If they see increased patrols in a given area, they are not going to continue going about their business as though nothing is happening. They will either go elsewhere or wait until the police presence dies down before resuming their activity.

It is true that big data and analytics can predict crime trends. In theory, this means predictive policing should reduce crime. Yet the hard data proving as much does not yet exist. Cities like Los Angeles and Dallas are acting as proving grounds to determine, once and for all, if predictive policing is worth investing in.

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