Thursday, November 21, 2013

Boston Marathon and CCTV - Are we learning yet?

Minutes after the Boston Marathon bombing 7 months and 6 days ago
photo Aaron Tang, Wikimedia Commons 

I enjoy watching the fictional TV cop show NCIS where Gibbs and the gang use omni-present CCTV to catch crooks doing crime. What fun! What fantasy! I hated watching the Boston Marathon bombing where CCTV caught the real act, live.

For years I've been writing about CCTV in public places in the United States and in Britain. Never shy to adopt barely-studied methods elsewhere, Canada's now in on the act. Yesterday's Leader-Post reports that "downtown Regina will be protected by 33 closed circuit (CCTV) cameras" during the upcoming Canadian Grey cup football championship game.

Let's see if I remember… 

Seven months and 6 days ago the radicalized Tsarnaev brothers carried pressure cooker bombs in backpacks in plain view of CCTV along the route of the Boston Marathon. An hour after police swept the area for explosives, they blew up their bombs killing and injuring bystanders. The whole horrible thing was caught live on CCTV. 

For a decade UK has led the world with thousands of CCTV in public places. Now a recent UK government study tells us 80% of CCTV images are ineffective and that "cameras are mostly used to trap motorists rather than catch criminals."

I'm glad cops use CCTV to catch crooks after the fact. But keeping the Grey Cup festival safe? All I see here is journalistic Alzheimer's.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Bad week for predictive policing - PredPol nightmare

Big data to the rescue - Does it work?
Last week was a very bad week for predictive policing, at least one version of it. It comes in the form of an article in the San Francisco Weekly News by investigative journalists Darwin Bond-Graham and Ali Winston. Their exposé, All Tomorrow's Crimes, reported on one company - PredPol - as it markets its computer software to police departments across the county.

It reads like a PR nightmare for PredPol.

It starts innocent enough: "PredPol, short for predictive policing, is riding this wave of techno-mania and capitalizing on the belief... that there's a killer app for everything, including crime-fighting."

I have written on this topic for years. My main worry has been cost and reliability. A year ago I wrote on the predictive model by IBM that Memphis Police call Blue Crush. Two years ago I wrote  The Precog Paradox and three years ago Solving the City With Math.

And now there is a killer app for predicting crime? 

But then the SF Weekly News article takes a darker turn:

"PredPol has required police departments that sign on to refer the company to other law enforcement agencies, and to appear in flashy press conferences, endorsing the software as a crime-reducer — despite the fact that its effectiveness hasn't yet been proven."


I have no idea if any of that is true. But it does show that too many police executives and press outlets are not doing their homework. Where is critical thinking when you need it?


A year ago a police executive posted on this blog. He is a critical thinker who we need more of in police leadership. This is what he said:

"I sat through a presentation yesterday involving an algorithm-based program that attempts to predict future crime… It could very well be one piece of the problem-solving puzzle. It's something that should not be dismissed. 

It doesn't take the place of a human crime analyst. It doesn't eliminate the need for problem solving. And it doesn't reduce the importance of collaborating with others. It's not cheap, and it could very well tempt agencies to divert funds away from more effective crime reduction strategies…

…only time will tell."

With this news article, it seems it has.

Below is a Ted Talk with a presenter whom the SF Weekly article identifies as a PredPol "lobbyist". It gives you an idea of the PredPol message.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

The Washington/BC murder mystery

Is more security cutting crime rates?
I cautiously stepped into a glass chamber at a recent security trade show to test a unique anti-burglary device. At the simulated moment of alarm activation I was blasted by a non-toxic, non-staining fog blanketing the chamber. I could see nothing. It's supposed to scare off burglars who cannot see their way to the loot. Devices like burglar foggers supposedly contributed to crime declines. So I'm told.

My last blog, Line on a Map, asked why the murder rate is so different in Washington State versus British Columbia (2.9 versus 1.5 per 100,000 - a ratio of 2:1).

The answer to that is buried somewhere in falling crime rates; falling under liberal and conservative governments, falling in peacetime and war. Until recently, falling like a stone in all but a few places.

Criminologists have multiple theories. Few agree.

Some say it is better security devices like burglar fogging or just more private security generally.

Unfortunately, while more security might explain some of that, the "better security devices" theory cannot explain declines in domestic violence, sexual assaults, and schoolyard bullying. Few of those victims are protected by better technical devices. Yet those rates too are also falling.


Some say it is more police per capita, new policing tactics like Compstat, stop-and-frisk, or stricter prison sentences?

During the 1990s, the first crime decline decade, those were American tactics. Canada had no changes in sentencing, no Compstat, no stop-and-frisk, and no more cops. Crime in Canada dropped just the same.


Aging population? That works better than other theories since older populations span most countries with crime declines. Since young males dominate prisons and court dockets, when they decline as a proportion of the whole population, crime drops. So the theory goes.

Yet none of that explains the Washington/BC gap until you factor that it is murder that is higher in Washington; property crime, especially burglary and theft, are not.


Then factor that most Washington murders involve handguns, in abundance in US cities and scarcer in Canada. True, crooks can always get guns on both sides and responsible gun owners don't leave their guns unsecured (gun rights folks…chill)!

Still, there are just more handguns around. For example, when a burglar breaks into a Washington home with a 1 in 20 chance of finding a handgun versus a 1 in 500 chance in BC, that handgun gets into more abundant criminal circulation. It then shows up more frequently during robberies and assaults. More shootings result in a much higher murder ratio in Washington vs BC - in this case a ratio of 2:1.  Gun advocates who think more guns will protect them are in a burglar fog. Look north for proof that they won't.

Nothing - not demographics, per capita police, economics, nor security devices - explain that difference better than handgun availability.

It truly is that straightforward. Solving it, sadly, isn't.