It was more than intuition that drew a Norcross police officer to an extended-stay hotel. A computer program in her police cruiser had advised her to scope out that very hotel, at that very hour. When she arrived, she spotted a suspicious-looking man.
Turns out, the man was on the lam, living at the hotel but wanted in Illinois on warrants stemming from burglary charges, officials said. “He would eventually have been doing something wrong in Norcross,” said Warren Summers, the city’s police chief.
But the hotel resident never got the chance. His was just one of several arrests made within the first twenty-four hours after Norcross rolled out new security software on August 8. The technology is, depending on your perspective, either a super creepy form of snooping or a highly effective crime deterrent.
Norcross became the first police department in Georgia to launch a real-time crime prediction tool from a company called PredPol (short for “predictive policing”). Using the same concepts retailers like Amazon and Target rely on to chart consumer behavior, the police program uses existing crime data (location, type of crime, dates, times, etc.) to form algorithms that lead police to where specific crimes are most likely to occur. It may sound farfetched—or like a plot device in a science-fiction thriller—but Chief Summers, for one, is sold.
Norcross cops credit the program with helping officers snare several suspects the first day—including the absconder from Illinois and two alleged burglars, who Summers said were caught red-handed in a house that fell within a 500 square-foot “predictive box” for misdeeds identified by the PredPol algorithms.
A team of mathematicians and social scientists developed PredPol at three California universities over the past six years. Since its launch in 2011, departments from Santa Cruz to Columbia, South Carolina have adopted the technology.
For now, PredPol helps Norcross officers target theft-related crimes such as robbery and burglary, as opposed to homicides or domestic disputes. The department is paying for the program with seized drug money.
Elsewhere in the metro area, the Atlanta Police Department started a ninety-day PredPol pilot program in July. Department spokesman Carlos Campos said APD would launch the program in the fall, if they deem the pilot a success.
All thirty Norcross patrol cars have access to PredPol via onboard laptops. Officers have been trained to patrol the “predictive boxes” frequently.
“You may displace crime just by being there,” Summers said. “The ultimate goal is not only to catch people but prevent crime.”