Tuesday, February 26, 2013

The future is here? And there...

Computer algorithms solving future crime? Photo by WallPapersUS

For ages criminologists settled on the idea that it is not the quantity of officers on patrol that matters most, but rather what they do. Respected police scholar James Q. Wilson (co-founder of the broken windows theory) pointed out it was the style, strategy and behavior of cops that mattered most.

Whatever! Regardless what police scholars thought, the math and computer types spent years figuring how to maximize the quantity and deployment of patrol cars. Squirreled away in dark basement rooms (at least in my imagination), they dedicated themselves to getting the quantity just right.

Disclosure: At one point I haunted those same basement rooms! I was a police planner for a few years and I evaluated PCAM - a computerized program for allocating patrol vehicles into geographic areas.


In the 1980s PCAM was the latest and greatest of its class. It  was supposed to estimate workload peaks, predict hourly call loads, maybe even better deploy cops to cut crime. All very cool stuff. It didn't work of course. PCAM just couldn't handle high priority calls. Still, it was pretty cool.

Unfortunately, no police allocation model received any level of wide acceptance throughout the 80s and 90s. That didn't change the fact that knowing where crime will happen is no small feat and so those basements remained very busy places. In fact, research continues today.

I've written all this before in blogs on predictive policing and the Precog Paradox.


Now for the latest! It looks like 007 is asking about the most recent variation on that old theme: Predpol. And compared to the others, Predpol is even cooler - in a shaken, not stirred, kind of way.

Predpol has crossed the Atlantic to the Kent Police. The Brits, it seems, are grasping at the same quantity straws that we are. Let's hope they don't obsess on where crime happens and ignore programs and funding on why they happen in the first place!

Monday, February 18, 2013

Taking cities back with paint

Transforming through color: Tirana, Albania.
Photo by David Dufresne

Ever notice a bright colored house? Ever noticed thousands?

There are obvious contenders for the throne of most colorful city. San Francisco's Lower Haight district or Miami's South Beach come to mind. Even better: Brazil's painted Favela's in Rio, Chile's Valparaiso, or Newfoundland's St. Johns in Canada.

But I know of no city that has intentionally attempted to transform blight, crime and the energy of a place through color. Until now.

In this TED.com talk Edi Rama, former mayor of Albania's capital, Tirana, describes how his city began their city transformation with paint. Check out the simplicity and impact.

This is an inspirational city and an inspirational mayor.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Criminal element - lead?

Lead affects us at far lower levels than we thought and there might be a crime link

Long ago on a hot Florida afternoon a new criminology faculty member sat down to lunch with Professor C. Ray Jeffery, ex-president of the American Society of Criminology and author of CPTED.

“CPTED is not just the environment where we live,” he lectured, “it’s also the bio-chemical environment within our bodies. It’s in the brain!” 

That new faculty member was me. To those who knew and respected Jeffery (also me), this was old turf. Yet criminologists ignored Jeffery’s ideas. Bio-chemical theories were invisible in crime theory. Why? They had once been popular.

In the 1800s phrenology measured head bumps to test for criminality. Strike one. Eugenics theories created compulsory sterilization programs well into the mid-20th Century? Strike two. The Nazi's nightmarish views on racial purity led to monsters like Joseph Mengele. Strike three. No wonder biology was ignored.

No longer! Today I read an article called America's Real Criminal Element: Lead. Author Kevin Drum shows how adding lead to gas corresponded with crime increases and how removing it in the 1980s also corresponded with the Great Crime Decline starting in 1990.


The article centers around Rick Nevin’s neurological research. From studies in 1999 to his 2007 paper about international crime trends and preschool lead exposure, Nevin shows the missing lead link over and over. He compares data from multiple countries. Same effect.

Then last August new research confirmed Nevin’s hypothesis with correlations between neighborhood lead levels and violence in places like New Orleans, San Diego and Chicago.

Los Angeles Police HQ. Gardens to help with cleanup
Scary stuff. Of course correlation doesn’t prove anything. But it suggests we’ve waited too long to start environmental soil clean-ups in neighborhoods, especially if crime is a result. Neurological studies do show that lead affects us at far lower levels than we thought and that childhood exposure at nearly any level can permanently reduce mental functioning.

Drum and Nevin tell us lead is everywhere. It might be out of the gas pumps, but decades ago it settled in the soil from vehicle emissions. It still gets tracked indoors on our shoes. Perhaps I should have listened less to the mainstream and more to Jeffery so long ago?

Saturday, February 2, 2013

"If you're going all city...don't be a toy"

Graffiti how-to section in Toronto bookstore

If you're going all city, don't shark or get buffed. Don't be a toy!"

That's not gang lingo, it belongs to a much bigger group: Graff writers!

Graffiti existed millenia before hip hop, street gangs, and Banksy. Napoleon's soldiers did it on ancient Egyptian ruins. Mao's hoards created the world's longest to stir China's Communist Revolution.  Today high art galleries feature it from Manhattan to London. Academy nominated films glorify it.

The past few months I've photographed an ever-so blurry line between street art and graff. Just consider the quality of design. How far is one design of wall graffiti in Hartford, CT from that of a mural in Victoria, BC?

A small stretch of wall graffiti in Hartford, Connecticut

A wall mural in Victoria, British Columbia
Graffiti is growing in cities around the world. On a recent trip to Toronto I found bookstores featuring graff history, how-to, and heroes.

Then I found a politically incorrect Mad TV version of taggers. It makes light of something that's not. But it is kind of funny. Enjoy.