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What if police could stop crime?

Tuesday, October 1, 2013 - 12:01 am

Technology from Purdue helps deploy officers where needed.

We don’t expect police to make crime prevention their primary mission. For one thing, the tasks of identifying and catching criminals are both too important and too time- and energy-consuming. For another, prevention would require a degree of foreknowledge close to clairvoyance.

But suppose technology could give police something like such prescience? Well, they’ve been working on that.

A team of Purdue University researchers, working through a grant from the Homeland Security Department, have created a program called VALET (Visual Analytics Law Enforcement Toolkit) that uses police data, court records and social media to track crime patterns and plot them with red spots on a map. Then a computer algorithm can be used to analyze that information and forecast future criminal activity, with a 95 percent degree of accuracy claimed.

Police departments in several states already use VALET, and it’s not hard to see the value in adopting it. Public safety personnel are stretched pretty thin these days. Just think how much more effectively a personnel-challenged department could be if it when and where certain types of crimes would be committed and could deploy officers accordingly, preemptively. Crimes stopped from happening equals safer communities.

A similar system in England has been developed by Scotland Yard working with University College London, and the drop in crime in cities where it is used has been so impressive that all 43 police forces in England and Wales are being encouraged to adopt this approach to allocating resources.

Anyone who has seen the movie “Minority Report” can imagine how such an approach might go wrong. If police get very good at anticipating where crime will happen, they might start thinking they can anticipate who might commit them. If they acted on such a belief, it would turn everything we understand about rights and freedom on its head.

Anything that can be abused will be sooner or later, so it’s wise to be aware of the wrong turns that might be taken.

In the meantime, though, let’s celebrate this approach for the good news it is. In the novel “1984,” the government oppresses the populace by using technology to hoard and distort information. And with the current National Security Agency scandal, we are seeing how government can misuse information in the real world. But we shouldn’t let our fears prevent police from gathering important information and finding better ways to make use of it.

“There’s never a cop around when you need one” has become a cynical catchphrase of the age. How cool would it be if we never had to say that?