The future of crime fighting begins with a story about strawberry Pop-Tarts, bad weather and Wal-Mart.
With a hurricane bearing down on the Florida coast several years ago, the retail giant sent supply trucks into the storm to stock shelves with the frosted pink pastries. The decision to do so had not been made on a whim or a hunch, but by a powerful computer that crunched reams of sales data and found an unusual but undeniable fact: When Mother Nature gets angry, people want to eat a lot more strawberry Pop-Tarts.
Officials in the Los Angeles Police Department are using the anecdote to explain a similar, but far more complicated, idea that they and researchers say could revolutionize law enforcement.
"As police departments have gotten better at pushing down crime, we are looking now for the thing that will take us to the next level," LAPD Chief Charlie Beck said. "I firmly believe predictive policing is it."
Predictive policing is rooted in the notion that it is possible, through sophisticated computer analysis of information about previous crimes, to predict where and when crimes will occur. At universities and technology companies in the U.S. and abroad, scientists are working to develop computer programs that, in the most optimistic scenarios, could enable police to anticipate, and possibly prevent, many types of crime.
Some of the most ambitious work is being done at UCLA, where researchers are studying the ways criminals behave in urban settings.
One, who recently left UCLA to teach at Santa Clara University near San Jose is working to prove he can forecast the time and place of crimes using the same mathematical formulas that seismologists use to predict the distribution of aftershocks from an earthquake.
Another builds computer simulations of criminals roving through city neighborhoods in order to better understand why they tend to cluster in certain areas and how they disperse when police go looking for them.
"The naysayers want you to believe that humans are too complex and too random — that this sort of math can't be done," said Jeff Brantingham, a UCLA anthropologist who is helping to supervise the university's predictive policing project.
"But humans are not nearly as random as we think," he said. "In a sense, crime is just a physical process, and if you can explain how offenders move and how they mix with their victims, you can understand an incredible amount."
The LAPD has positioned itself aggressively at the center of the predictive policing universe, forging ties with the UCLA team and drawing up plans for a large-scale experiment to test whether predictive policing tools actually work. The department is considered a front-runner to beat out other big-city agencies in the fall for a $3-million U.S. Justice Department grant to conduct the multiyear tests.
LAPD officials have begun to imagine what a department built around predictive tools would look like.
Automated, detailed crime forecasts tailored to each of the department's 21 area stations would be streamed several times a day to commanders, who would use them to make decisions about where to deploy officers in the field.
For patrol officers on the streets, mapping software on in-car computers and hand-held devices would show continuous updates on the probability of various crimes occurring in the vicinity, along with the addresses and background information about paroled ex-convicts living in the area.
In turn, information gathered by officers from suspects, witnesses and victims would be fed in real time into a technology nerve center where predictive computer programs churn through huge crime databases.
If any of this ever becomes reality, it will be in large part because of Lt. Sean Malinowski, a bookish, soft-spoken former Fulbright scholar who oversees the department's crime analysis unit. With the blessing of former Chief William J. Bratton and now Beck, Malinowski has spent the last few years immersing himself in the world of predictive technologies.
In law enforcement circles, where confusion and skepticism about predictive policing run deep, he has established himself as one of only a few people who know both what it is to be a cop and how predictive technology could fit into the job. Malinowski was recently summoned to Washington by U.S. Atty. Gen. Eric Holder, who wanted a tutorial on the topic.
It is not by chance that the LAPD is pursuing predictive technologies. No city in the U.S. stands to gain more from the potential payoff than Los Angeles.
The city is one of the most severely under-policed in the country, with just shy of 10,000 police officers on its payroll. At any given time, only a fraction of them are on duty, spread across 469 square miles that are home to more than 4 million people. Predictive tools, if they work, would allow the LAPD to get more out of its meager force.