The real Minority Report? Kent Constabulary tests computer program to predict crime

Initial results from trial suggest algorithms can help police

It's after 1pm, and Danny - a young man with a history of theft and shoplifting - is not best pleased to be roused with a knock on the door by the police.

No, he says, he wasn't up late last night and, no, he hasn't been in trouble. "I'm always being hassled by you lot," he tells Sergeant Dave Venus-Coppard before the officer takes his leave from the untidy hostel room.

Danny lives in one of the less salubrious areas of Chatham, Kent. Many of the houses in his road are owned by a charity that rehouses the troubled, the alcoholics and the drug users when they are moved on by other councils. Danny's road had appeared at the centre of a small box on Sgt Venus-Coppard's computer screen earlier that morning, representing one of 20 areas where crime was most likely to happen that day. The visit to Danny is part of a strategy to see that nothing does.

Kent is one of the testing grounds in Britain for predictive policing, a mingling of criminology, anthropology and mathematics designed to stop crimes before they take place. The technique was praised in a report by Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary that was largely critical of the ways in which forces have adopted technology.

In the sci-fi movie Minority Report, set in 2054, Tom Cruise plays a detective who prevents murders being committed after acting on the warnings of three mutated humans who predict when they will happen. The reality is rather more mundane for Sgt Venus-Coppard, who scours a computer map speckled with boxes that correspond to areas measuring 150 square metres; these shift according to the time of the day and developing crime patterns. When he comes on duty, he and his fellow officers are expected, when they are able, to spend 15 minutes inside the boxed areas.

The boxes are the result of analysts having tapped in crime statistics for the past five years and then applying an algorithm developed in California to assess where crime will happen the next day. In the face of 20 per cent budget cuts, it allows the force to focus its officers more effectively and "get the biggest bang for your buck", says Detective Chief Superintendent Jon Sutton, who is in charge of the project. The annual cost of £130,000 is the equivalent of a six-week undercover operation with 30 officers; and that, says the officer, is good value for money.

The police federation, which represents the majority of officers in England and Wales, said the technology was reliant on putting the right resources in the right place at the right time. “We’ve already experienced 20 per cent cuts to the policing budget with a further 4.9% to come. You can have the best technology in place but this falls flat if there are insufficient resources to complement it,” said vice chairman Steve White.

It also relies on accurate crime statistics from a force that was criticised in June after inspectors found that one in 10 crimes had been wrongly recorded.

"The only information going into the analysis is information on reported crimes: where they occur, when they occur and what type of crime," said Jeff Brantingham, an anthropologist and co-founder of PredPol in the US.

"Violent crime is often portrayed on movies and television as random acts driven by the passion of the moment, but there's a lot more structure to it than people think.

"People go to certain pubs because they know they are going to get into scraps and the pub won't discourage that; so you end up with a cluster of assaults outside that pub at two in the morning."

Computer mapping is nothing new, but the program being used in Kent introduces the variable of human behaviour to give an indication of where the career burglar will strike next. The algorithm includes the burglar's inclination not to stray too far from home and, once he has identified rich pickings, to return in anticipation of similar success.

Early results are encouraging. Over a period of several months, officers found that the computer was 60 per cent more likely than its in-house analysts to predict where crime occurred. The adoption of predictive policing for burglaries, assaults and car crime has allowed analysts to focus on targeting individuals.

The head of analysis at Kent, Mark Johnson, said the system had provided surprising successes. One officer who was due to visit a victim of motorbike theft arrived early for the appointment and went to the nearby "box" for 15 minutes. He ended up spotting the stolen bike and arresting two people. Fire crews and community officers are also encouraged to drop in to the boxes, with analysis suggesting it has a disruptive effect for a couple of hours.

Hence the visit to Danny. In his short tour of the area, Sgt Venus-Coppard picks up on broken windows, and encourages people to take their rubbish inside. He finally stops for a chat with Simon Haslett, 43, who has fitted a CCTV camera outside his home because of repeated acts of vandalism on his car. The street is a multicultural mix and tensions are running high after a series of fights on previous nights.

Mr Haslett is fed up and is moving himself and his family away from life inside the box. “I wouldn’t recommend anyone living here,” he says.

Arts and Entertainment
Sydney and Melbourne are locked in a row over giant milk crates
art
News
Kenny Ireland, pictured in 2010.
peopleActor, from House of Cards and Benidorm, was 68
News
A scene from the video shows students mock rioting
newsEnd-of-year leaver's YouTube film features staging of a playground gun massacre
Travel
travel
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Voices
A family sit and enjoy a quiet train journey
voicesForcing us to overhear dull phone conversations is an offensive act, says Simon Kelner
News
i100This Instagram photo does not prove Russian army is in Ukraine
News
Morrissey pictured in 2013
people
Sport
sportVan Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
Environment
View from the Llanberis Track to the mountain lake Llyn
Du’r Arddu
environmentA large chunk of Mount Snowdon, in north Wales, is up for sale
Life and Style
Martha Stewart wrote an opinion column for Time magazine this week titled “Why I Love My Drone”
lifeLifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot... to take photos of her farm
Arts and Entertainment
The Secret Cinema performance of Back to the Future has been cancelled again
filmReview: Sometimes the immersive experience was so good it blurred the line between fiction and reality
News
i100
Life and Style
The director of Wall-E Andrew Stanton with Angus MacLane's Lego model
gadgetsDesign made in Pixar animator’s spare time could get retail release
News
peopleGuitarist, who played with Aerosmith, Lou Reed and Alice Cooper among others, was 71
Environment
Tyred out: should fair weather cyclists have a separate slow lane?
environmentFormer Labour minister demands 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists
News
people
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Day In a Page

Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

In grandfather's footsteps

5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

Martha Stewart has flying robot

The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

A tale of two presidents

George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover

The dining car makes a comeback

Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover
Gallery rage: How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?

Gallery rage

How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?
Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players

Eye on the prize

Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
Women's rugby: Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup

Women's rugby

Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup
Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

We will remember them

Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

Acting in video games gets a makeover

David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices