Predictive Policing: How Algorithms Help Crime Analysts Do Their Jobs

Officers bringing a cuffed suspect into an active police station with computer monitors in use.

In nearly every industry, there is buzz about “big data” and the possibilities it presents. For the world of law enforcement, a growing practice known as predictive policing involves analyzing data to prevent crime. As an increasing number of police departments take advantage of new technology, departments of all sizes have been able to benefit from predictive policing.

Understanding Predictive Policing

Predictive policing has become a critical part of many police forces. Time named the practice one of the 50 top inventions of 2011, and predictive policing is in place everywhere from California to South Carolina and even China. But what is it exactly?

With predictive policing, “law enforcement uses data and analyzes patterns to understand the nature of a problem,” according to the National Institute of Justice (NIJ), the research and development branch of the U.S. Department of Justice.

The NIJ explains that predictive policing is often a two-pronged approach, where experts apply analytics to data sets alongside intervention models. This helps departments understand where and what crimes are likely to happen in order to ensure that resources are distributed effectively. For example, predictive policing can help officers see that one particular area is a “hot spot” for break-ins. This allows them to deploy more officers to the area to look out for potential criminal activity.

Using Crime Mapping for Predictive Policing

Crime mapping is perhaps the most important method used in predictive policing. Police have always used maps to determine potential patrol areas and emergency routes, but technology provides the chance to map crime and find patterns.

What Is Crime Mapping?

In her book Crime Analysis With Crime Mapping, crime analysis expert Rachel Boba Santos defines crime mapping as “the process of using a geographic information system to conduct spatial analysis of crime problems and other police-related issues.”

Through the use of crime mapping, finding crime patterns is much easier. Data can show where past victims and offenders live as well as where crimes actually occur. This helps officers understand which neighborhoods attract repeat offenders and where potential offenders may live. Geographic software gives crime analysts the ability to visualize this data over geographic space, making the patterns much more evident.

Implications for Crime Analysis

Santos explains that crime mapping plays into several forms of crime analysis. While crime mapping should not be the sole reason for a police action, it can lay a great foundation for officers to make deductions. There are three ways that the process is implemented.

Tactical Implementation

Crime mapping can help officials immediately find crime patterns that support action. If a spree of connected crimes is occurring across an area, crime analysts can use mapping to deduce what might happen next.

Strategic Implementation

As maps grow and evolve, crime analysts can find long-term trends that showcase unique relationships. For example, maps can show that vacant lots in an area have a history of drug-related crime or that gang violence is slowly emerging in new neighborhoods. This helps departments create strategic plans that can improve public safety. They might encourage the city to repair vacant lots or talk to community leaders in gang-affected neighborhoods.

Administrative Implementation

In many situations, crime mapping can be just as helpful for the public. If a string of crimes is occurring, the public may have more insight into who the perpetrators might be just by being in an affected geographic area. Maps can help lead to tips, and tips can lead to arrests.

Real-World Use of Predictive Policing

With the rapid growth of predictive policing across the United States and the world, many experts have asked how helpful it really is. There are plenty of examples showcasing how predictive policing helps departments protect citizens.

A study of the Los Angeles Police Department found that its use of predictive policing proved extraordinarily successful. The study found that the LAPD’s mathematical model correctly predicted the locations of crimes on 4.7 percent of its forecasts, in contrast to 2.1 percent of the forecasts done by human analysts. This led to expanding patrols in identified areas, which resulted in 7.4 percent fewer crimes per week. Including costs to victims, courts and society, researchers estimated that using the algorithm would save the city of Los Angeles $9 million per year.

The city of Atlanta found an aggregate crime decrease of 8 and 9 percent in the two areas where predictive policing was deployed in July 2013. Other cities have reported similar gains.

The RAND Corporation, a nonprofit research organization, did a comprehensive study in 2013 in order to evaluate the effectiveness of predictive policing. It found that the technology can indeed support police with numerous facets of crime prevention. These included predicting and identifying individuals likely to commit crimes, predicting accurate profiles of likely offenders with specific past crimes and predicting those likely to become crime victims.

Pursuing a Career in Criminal Justice

For those interested in a career as a crime analyst, a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice is almost always required. This degree offers students the foundational knowledge they need to understand the world of law enforcement and be prepared for crime analysis. Some roles require several years of service before entering this particular line of work. Depending on the jurisdiction, a certification may be required. The International Association of Crime Analysts offers a certification, and many states offer training as well.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, forensic science technicians (including crime analysts) earn a median salary of $56,320 annually.

As law enforcement professionals continue to search for new and inventive ways to preserve public safety, the field of crime analysis will grow. At Campbellsville University, we offer an online Associate of Science in Criminal Justice and an online Bachelor of Science in Criminal Justice Administration — degree programs that are designed to prepare students for career success. Whether you’re looking to start protecting and serving your community or want to advance your career with a new credential, Campbellsville University Online can help you maintain your responsibilities while pursuing your goals.