Feature Story

Digital Technologies: Today’s New Crime Fighters

New innovations are helping to capture criminals, reveal corruption, and even fight crime before it happens.

The police are in hot pursuit. A robbery just occured, and the fleet-footed criminal is making his getaway. The officers give it their all, but the robber evades them through winding streets.

Now imagine a drone flying overhead tracking the thief. The police see where he is heading with the stolen goods. Thanks to a bird’s eye view from the drone, they easily cut him off at the pass.

You don’t need to imagine. That scenario is happening today.

Drones, and other digital technologies, are enabling even small police forces to take the high ground.

Detective Donnie Hammons of the Crossville, Tenn., police department said that a helicopter would cost his organization’s entire yearly budget. But their new video-equipped drone costs less than a car and about the same as a tracking dog.

“The drone can do almost anything that a helicopter can do,” he said. “Search and rescue, chase bad guys, find Alzheimer’s patients that have wandered off.”

Drones and robots can be fitted with a multitude of sensors, and can step into harm’s way, without risking lives.

“I think the drone technology, the robotic technology, as we saw in Fukushima and these places, does have an impact on both emergency disasters and post-disaster occurrences,” said Louis A. Zacharilla, co-founder of the Intelligent Community Forum.

“Their ability to gather data, to go where no one should be going at the moment, will ultimately save more and more lives,” he said.

But drones aren’t the only technology helping to catch the bad guys.

Today, digital technologies are critical to ensuring public safety.

This means that government, police, and emergency management officials need to be tech-savvy and innovative in their thinking.

“Every major trend in IT is having an impact on public safety,” said Norman Jacknis, adjunct professor of applied analytics at Columbia University and a senior fellow for the National Association of Counties.

“Social media, drones, cloud, augmented reality, analytics, artificial intelligence—every hot tech topic will find its way into public safety,” he continued.

Analytics and artificial intelligence (AI), for example, can almost predict when and where certain crimes will take place. But leaders need to balance fears of “Big Brother” surveillance, by stating a clear and transparent case for the benefits of new technologies. Especially at a time of heightened tensions among police, governments, and citizens.

“Social media is something you can’t ignore,” said Rob Dudgeon of Union Foxtrot International, an emergency management consultancy firm. “But you’d be amazed at how many senior people in public safety try to ignore it.”

Dudgeon cited the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013 as one case in which officials—including former Boston Police Commissioner Ed Davis—understood social media’s potential.

“The police commissioner did a great job of sharing information, making it relevant, and becoming that trusted source,” Dudgeon said.

Information, after all, has always been essential to public safety. Social media is just another way of sharing it.

Today, platforms for sharing information are evolving fast. Sensors that detect gunshots are embedded in smart-lighting platforms, video cameras monitor remote corners of a community (sometimes from aerial drones), and social media supports citizen engagement while revealing potential dangers. Everything from terrorism and flu outbreaks to bad behavior from the police themselves.

The challenge is managing those multiple data streams for key insights.

Fighting Crime—Before It Happens

New software applications are simplifying that process. One solution is called “predictive policing,” which can combine information from historical data bases, social media, weather forecasts, traffic patterns, public events, and more to project when and where crimes may occur.

Predictive policing can’t read people’s bad intentions or dark thoughts, but its algorithms support much more efficient use of resources.

“Predictive policing combines Big Data analytics and AI,” said Jacknis. “Not to figure out who is going to commit a crime, that’s science fiction, but where the hot spots are. And what you will need to deal with them.”

Brian MacDonald is CEO of PredPol, a predictive analytics firm that provides a platform for police departments.

“The goal is not to catch criminals in the act,” he said. “The goal is to prevent crimes from happening in the first place.”

PredPol divides communities into “boxes,” about the size of a city intersection. If the algorithms predict the likelihood of auto thefts or home burglaries in a particular box, departments can beef up patrols in that area.

Cities such as Los Angeles, Reading Pa., and Kent, England, have reported drops in crime since implementing predictive policing.

MacDonald expects the technology to be common in the near future.

“It’s not a matter of if, it’s when,” said MacDonald. “Data is informing virtually all of our decisions, whether its healthcare, politics, or logistics. It would be surprising if police departments did not embrace data to do their jobs more effectively.”

A Delicate Balancing Act—Benefits or ‘Big Brother’?

Officials will need to manage controversies in the future. Drones are associated with targeted killings in the Middle East, and predictive policing generates fears of unwarranted surveillance.

But MacDonald stresses that PredPol’s algorithms focus on neutral factors such as historic crime types, times, and locations. Race, class, and personal data are not used.

He adds that, at a time of increased tensions with police in some communities, smarter deployment of officers—and crime deterrence—will drive multiple benefits.

“This helps police officers do the job they have been trained to do,” MacDonald said. “To use all of their skills to engage with the community to help solve problems.”

Education is essential.

“Transparency should be built into these efforts from the start,” Dudgeon said. “Setting up boundaries for what is acceptable and what is not. As with all technology, it’s a matter of how it’s used.”

If used right, communities will be safer, not to mention happier.

“Fear disrupts our ability to be joyful in the places we live,” said Zacharilla. “Once public safety is assumed, the joy comes back.”