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Mesa PD gets ready to launch predictive policing

With the purchase of the crime-predicting software, PredPol, the Mesa Police Department will, allegedly, have a better chance to try and stop crime before it happens. (Courtesy of PredPol)

The Mesa Police Department is upgrading its crime-fighting capabilities. With the purchase of the crime-predicting software, PredPol, the department will, allegedly, have a better chance to try and stop crime before it happens.

Using algorithms, the software will show historically where and when crime has happened in specific areas of a city. The trends can then be used by police officers to set missions to patrol potential crime hotspots.

“PredPol is not about predicting who is going to commit a crime sort of the ‘Minority Report’ kind of idea,” said UCLA professor and PredPol co-founder, Jeff Brantingham. “It’s about predicting where and when crime is most likely to occur.”

Brantingham said the only information used are those crimes reported to the police.

“These are things like burglaries where somebody is victimized, their house is broken into, they call the police and say, ‘My house had been broken into.’ Police verify that and that event becomes part of their data base. We use those crime events occurring in Mesa as a basis for predicting where and when future burglaries are likely to occur,” he said.

PredPol came out of a decade of research from a collaboration between University California Los Angeles and the Los Angeles Police Department.

The crime-predicting software became widely available in 2012 and is already in more than 60 cities worldwide, including Los Angeles, Atlanta, and it’s being used in the U.K. and in Uruguay.

Mesa Police Chief John Meza said he was interested in taking the department to the next level of public safety. Since he started over a decade ago, Meza said policing has changed. Initially, when he started, Meza said police departments would look at crime figures over 30 days. Through the years, he pushed to narrow that gap to 15, then seven days.

Today, police departments everywhere can pull crime data from a 24-hour period.

“The next step is predictability and real-time crime reporting,” Meza said.

What PredPol allows the department to do is the prediction half of the equation. It will take years’ worth of crime data and disseminates it so officers can see where and when crimes have occurred over the years. With that information, they can predict where a crime is most likely to happen.

In a way, it can be compared to weather prediction.

“You can sort of look at long-term trends. What’s happening with global climate change? You can look at the seasonal trends. What season are we in? And you can also look at today how are the wind patterns, the clouds and other things changing on a short-term basis. And today’s weather is a product of all those things. The long-term sort of centuries trend in climate; the medium-term changes in seasonal sort of where we are in the season; and the short-term things like storms or monsoons that are blowing through.

“Today’s weather is a product of all those things, and the same thing goes with crime,” Brantingham said.

Both Brantingham and Meza explained that crime is seasonal, very much like weather patterns. Whether it’s the time of year, day of the week or hour of the day, certain crimes are more likely to occur. Tracking those trends can give the police a weather-vein to predict where crime could happen.

Officers can see where crime happens in increments as small as 500-by-500-square-foot areas.

“Depending on the city, that can be a block, it could be half a block, it could be a couple blocks. It really just depends. But you can think of it as a very local area,” Brantingham said.

If a certain neighborhood historically has lots of robberies, the police department can send officers to patrol that area at the appropriate times as suggested by the data. However, PredPol is not the end all, be all of future policing, according to Meza.

“I don’t want anybody to think that this a crystal ball and it’s just going to pop up where crimes are occurring,” Meza said.

He added that he doesn’t like to use the word “predictability” as it can imply that they can somehow know exactly where and when a crime will occur. Meza said that’s not what PredPol does. Rather it shows the trends in crime and with that information, officers can be better prepared to patrol potential crime hotspots.

“This will not replace anything else, it’s just another tool in our toolbox…Over time we’re going to be able to see results if truly (PredPol) is really impacting our crime,” Meza said.

Mesa has seen a decline in crime over the last 10 years, Meza said. However, he pointed out that violent crime rose in 2014 then dipped again in 2015.

“But here in 2016, it’s trending back up. So, what that tells me is in violent crime we’re gaining some ground, but in the last three years it something that is starting to increase,” he said. “So I’m hoping that this software program will help us in areas of robberies, help us in the areas of aggravated assault, rapes, those kinds of things.”

PredPol is a cloud-based service. Police departments, like Mesa, upload their crime data and the software will do the work.

But what about privacy? Brantingham said all personal identifiers of suspects and victims are excluded.

“The data that’s going out of Mesa is what type of crime was it, where did it occur and when did it occur. That information is, by and large, relatively low risk, and it’s also in most state contexts largely considered public under the law. It’s not dealing with information on suspects or victims—who they are, where they live—that sort of stuff. Or their personal identifying information.”

The cost of PredPol is $170,200 over three years. Mesa PD is paying for it with RICO Funds—that is money which comes from forfeiture proceedings.

Meza said the Mesa Police Department plans to launch PredPol in early 2017. Mesa is the first city in Arizona to use the software.

– In addition to writing for MyNewsMesa.com, Mesa resident Kaely Monahan  anchors and reports for KTAR News.

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