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Posted: October 29, 2013 9:00 p.m.

Can software stop crime before it happens?

Neighboring county funds ‘cutting-edge technology’

It might sound like something out of a science fiction movie, but more and more local law enforcement agencies, including the Rockdale County Sheriff’s Office, are turning to predictive crime software to help officers be in the location of a possible crime before it happens and either prevent crime or catch criminals quickly.

On Tuesday, the Board of Commissioners approved the RCSO’s purchase of the PublicEngines CommandCentral Predictive crime software programs using $78,232 in seized drug money.

One part of the program package will create daily crime forecasts of potential high-crime areas that deputies can use to identify priority areas for patrol. The programs use proprietary algorithms and historical data to create a prediction model, according to the PublicEngines website.

These same kind of algorithms are commonly used by corporations for more mundane predictions, such as what type of product a person is likely to buy or movie they’re likely to watch.

"This is cutting-edge technology that is going to help us deploy deputies to the locations that they will need to be at to have the most impact against crime," wrote RCSO Chief Deputy Scott Freeman. "Unlike traditional crime mapping, predictive policing is advanced technology that will help us determine where crime will take place. This is truly exciting and I am anxious to get the RCSO up and running so we can start realizing the benefits of this technology."

Freeman said, "This software is not going to replace the need to have good, well-trained sheriff’s deputies. Instead, it is going to allow our deputies to have the critical knowledge and information to apply their law enforcement skills in the right place at the right time to reduce crime. While there should be no illusion that this is going to stop crime as we know it, it is going to help us determine where crime will take place so that we can focus our resources in those areas."

In addition, RCSO is implementing additional software the public can use to track crime and submit tips.

The CrimeReports program lets residents view local crime data for Rockdale in near real-time.

TipSoft allows citizens to submit anonymous tips via the Web or their mobile phone.

In addition, Rockdale residents will have access to crime information and be able to submit tips on crimes through a mobile application called CityConnect, which provides both the crime map and tip submission features on any iPhone or Android smartphone.

"Our goal at the Rockdale County Sheriff’s Office is to continually be more effective at making our county safer," said Rockdale Sheriff Eric Levett. "However, we live under constant budget constraints. CommandCentral Predictive and the other software we are implementing will allow us to do our jobs more effectively and will keep the public informed at a level that has never before been available to Rockdale residents."

Norcross’s experience

Norcross police have found some success with a similar crime predictive software program they started using months ago.

The program, which gives predictions in 12-hour blocks of time, helps officers cover areas where the program predicts crime will occur. Combined with GPS units in the car, it allows the department to make sure the coverage is widespread and not concentrated in unnecessary spots, said Norcross Police Chief Warren Summers.

"We’ve had instances that the officer was there and was very close (because of the program) and able to apprehend the criminal," said Summers, who was a former RCSO major.

Sometimes, the predicted areas are obvious and sometimes they are not, said Summers.

Previously, the Norcross PD had used programs that showed past hot spots, but the new programs use an algorithm, which is patented, and data the police provide, such as time/date, place and type of past crimes, to predict where crimes are likely to occur in a given area.

"It’s not hindsight as much as foresight," Summers explained. "All police departments that have any automation system have tons of data. The trick is not where crime has happened in the past, but where is it going to happen in the future."

But, he emphasized, this is only one tool out of many.

"Community policing is still a huge part of this," he said. He cited several arrests where burglars were caught red-handed because of a neighbor’s call reporting suspicious activity.

"We have to continue our efforts to get the citizens to engage and to trust us. … If they don’t report the crimes, the algorithms are going to be inaccurate."

"It’s a great tool and we love it, but it’s a wide variety of factors we have to utilize. You have to use all the factors to ultimately reduce crime."

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