Big Data is Watching You

Predictive policing arrives in Charleston

by Paul Bowers

“They’re actually starting to look at data and trying to not just react to crime and where it’s happening, but actually take a lot of different types of information and predict in the future where that crime might occur … to be preventive instead of reactive.””
—Charleston Police Chief Gregory Mullen

Hypothetical situation: It’s 1:30 p.m. on a Tuesday, and you are standing on the sidewalk in front of a house in West Ashley with an empty duffle bag in hand. Is that enough evidence for police to confront you or even arrest you on an attempted burglary charge? Almost certainly not. But what if the officer knows that on this particular block, from 1 to 2 p.m. on Tuesday, there is a 15-percent chance that someone will try to commit a burglary? Would that be a good enough reason for the officer to question your presence on the sidewalk?

Welcome to the new world of predictive policing, where computer models can give police hour-by-hour, block-by-block crime forecasts: Watch out for car break-ins around this neighborhood at lunchtime. Keep your guard up for violence over the weekend at this gang turf border. Police departments from Los Angeles to Memphis, Tenn., have already been using predictive policing software for years already. This month, the technology arrived in Charleston. (more on