Newton Police Sergeant Bryan Hall stares at computer screen filled with what looks like, in many ways, a weather radar. Shades of blue, yellow and red are littered with lines and circles.
And in the middle of it all is a dot. In this case, a dot which shows the most probable place all the drunk drivers arrested on a given night likely got into their car to start their trip.
Conventional wisdom would place that dot on a bar. And that's just where it is — on the largest bar in town.
"The software does not know where the bar is, but it still identified our largest bar," Hall said.
Conventional wisdom would also say for officers to patrol near the bar, maybe even walk the sidewalk and talk to a few people and prevent them from getting into the car.
What that all means is officers can prevent a crime, rather than chase after it later. The same principles applied to those DUI cases can be applied to other crime — a series of graffiti tags, burglaries or car thefts. A series of rapes, or murders, if one occurs.
It's called predictive policing and it is changing how police departments do their jobs.
"The traditional model is to answer a radio call after a crime is committed," Hall said. "Officers then aggressively identify and apprehend the suspect. When they are not doing that, they are doing random patrols. Random patrols yield random results."
Hall envisions the day when a patrol officer will look at a computer screen and know that at 7 p.m. on a Friday they should get a cup of coffee at a specific convenience store — because the probability is that store is going to be held up that night. The presence of the officer could very well stop the crime from happening.
That visit may not result in an arrest, but the prevention of a crime. Officers may not have a target suspect — only a date and time.
"This is not looking at people," Hall said. "It is looking at place. … This is not racially based, and this isn't about a pre-crime arrest. It's not mining data that gets people's private information. It uses census data and public works data — things that are publicly available."
There are three things that need to be in place for a crime to be committed — a motivated offender, a suitable victim and a time and place where there is lack of a protector for the victim.
Data analysis, which looks at trends and the theory of routine activities along with rational crime pattern theories, predicts the time and place of a crime.
"If we can disrupt patterns, it is more beneficial to the community than being a reactive force," Hall said. "We'd rather prevent the milk from falling off the counter than clean up the spill later."
It sounds like science fiction — analyzing historical crime data to predict where crime could happen.
But it's not. It's very real. The Richland, Washington, police department started working with Bair Analytics — the company working with NPD to create hot spot policing — to do just what Newton is trying to do.
Richland rolled out the same tools Newton is working on implementing right now — anonymous tips via cell phone, online and cell phone crime maps and data analysis to track crime patterns. They created a partnership of two counties for data sharing between multiple police and sheriff's jurisdictions.
"What this does is push information to (officers) to tell them where they should be spending their time. If we can predict where officers should be at different times of the day, days of the week and weeks of the month, then officers can really formulate a good strategy to help interdict crime or deter crime," said Chris Skinner, Richland police chief in a video promoting the effort. "That is what this about, making a safe community through predictive policing."
The Newton system is not yet fully implemented. Data is being "cleaned" and input into a system which is up and down.
But it is in use, currently analyzing crime to identify the "hunting zones" of those committing a series of crimes. Patrols head into those areas during times identified as hot zones.
"This is a lot like weather forecasting," Hall said. "It doesn't mean there will be a 180 degree change in crime activity tomorrow. It takes time. … We have to put the officers in place where they can do the most good."