Analytic Detective Work

Data mining is becoming an indispensable crime-fighting tool.

In the movie "Minority Report," crime fighters were able to visualize crimes before they happened, getting enough details to stop the crimes in progress and arrest the would-be perpetrators.

Reality today isnt quite so dramatic. But law enforcement agencies and corporations are turning to developers such as SPSS Inc. and SAS Institute Inc. and using predictive analytics gleaned from data mining to gain greater insights into solving and in some cases, even preventing crime.

The Richmond (Va.) Police Department has deployed Chicago-based SPSS Clementine data mining software to help snuff out crime before it happens, prevent property crimes from escalating into more violent crimes, and even gain insights into how the drug trade operates.

"Its as close to a crystal ball as were gonna get for a really long time," said Colleen McCue, program manager for the Crime Analysis Unit at the department. "It truly is a paradigm shift."

The department scored recent successes using the software, including a crackdown on the firing of guns into the air on the Fourth of July. "We put resources out in locations where historically weve had problems with the illegal use and discharge of weapons, and we were able to get a lot of illegal guns off the street," McCue said.

The software has done more advanced analysis too. Three times in the past 12 months, the Richmond Police Department used the software to accurately predict that property crimes in progress could escalate to a violent crime.

"We flagged what would normally be a standard property crime and rolled out a more aggressive response and had the right force in place at the right time," McCue said. "In all three cases, we pulled a violent offender or sex offender off the streets."

The software also helps to pinpoint crime by type and area to help with tactical deployments of personnel, especially as the department, like so many others, has to cope with budget crunches.

The Police Department has used Clementine for the past year and a half, after using SPSS base analytics platform before that. Clementine has enabled the department to deploy the software for use around the clock by nontechnical users, said McCue, herself a statistician.

"Were starting to get towards 24-by-7 crime analysis. Most of us analysts work 9 to 5. Most crime happens on evenings and weekends," she said.

Next page: How the Technology Has Homeland Security Implications.