Can the good guys get one step ahead?

Straight out of a sci-fi film: can this software catch the bad guys before they commit the crime?/The Sly Oyster

A world without crime, a world where the bad guys are always caught, a world where the good guys are one step ahead – sounds like the makings of a cheesy Friday night, canned-beer-and-food-out-of-a box kind of film. But, jokes aside, a program known as CRUSH aims to predict crimes before they happen.

Law enforcement agencies are starting to adopt software tools in attempt to help decrease levels of crime and increase the chances of wrong-doers being caught. CRUSH (Criminal Reduction Utilizing Statistical History) is the product of a collaboration between The Memphis Police Department in the USA and SPSS (Statistical Package for Social Sciences), an IBM company, and uses algorithms to predict when and where crimes are going to happen.

CRUSH cannot predict that a crime will definitely be committed at a particular point in time, but it can, however, pinpoint where waves of crimes are likely to occur, and in some cases, its suggestions can be as specific as predicting a burglary taking place between 10pm and 2am in a small geographic area. The premise is that criminal behaviour is like any other – it can be examined and patterns can be found with the right software, similar to how retailers like Amazon analyse customer behavioural patterns.

Memphis Police are thus predicting “trends” in criminal behaviour using a predictive analytics software developed by SPSS. This software is used for a variety of purposes by many organisations around the world, for example, for data mining, text analytics and statistical analysis. It analyses the database given to it and can be used to apply statistical models to the data it mines to see if any trends occur. Its most notable achievement was in aiding the police raid a group that had committed 84 armed robberies.

This is a great example of how powerful a tool proper statistics and analytics can be. At the end of the day, “people are creatures of habit” says behavioural scientist Colleen McCue. She goes on to say that “When you go shopping, you go to a place where they have the things you’re looking for … the criminal wants to go where he will be successful also”. In other words, given time and effort, it can become easier to detect and prevent crime before it occurs.

The software has the potential to give great results, with Memphis officials claiming serious crimes have fallen by 30%, and violent crimes by 15%, since the software has been implemented. And with great results has come even greater interests, with officials around the world, from Hong Kong to Rio de Janiro, flocking to Memphis to review the software and the promise it offers.