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November 03, 2007
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High-tech analyses predict patterns of criminal activity

By William Presecky
The Chicago Tribune

KANE COUNTY, Ill. In the past, Kane County crime fighters' most accurate tool for determining where bad guys would strike next was sticking pins in a map and playing a professional hunch.

But now they are combining modern graphic imaging systems, computer technology and extensive crime analysis with old-fashioned sleuthing to more accurately pinpoint where and when certain crimes are likely to occur and then prevent them from happening, said Kane County Sheriff Pat Perez.

Authorities in the fast-growing county recently made an arrest in a rash of car burglaries by advising officers to keep a close eye on a particular area at a particular time.

"I was able to calculate the next time this would likely occur," said Deputy Jim Caulfield, a crime analyst. "Since they caught the guy, we've had no vehicle burglaries in that area."

In fact, the program has worked so well in unincorporated areas, which typically have fewer patrols, that officials see it as a wave of things to come in law enforcement.

"This is a tool that is making us a more proactive agency," said Perez, who refers to Caulfield as the department's Nostradamus, after the 16th Century prophet.

"The ultimate goals are to deter crime, if we can, and better use our manpower," Caulfield said.

The county's recent advance mirrors a decadeslong effort by police departments regionally, nationally and internationally to upgrade intelligence-gathering capabilities, according to Caulfield, who received the training in May along with other civilian and uniformed analysts from across the Chicago region. The initiative picked up steam after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

The concept has been around for 30 years, but the process of analyzing crime and incorporating crime analysis units into mainstream police operations is relatively new, said Steven Gottlieb, a former police officer and founder of The Alpha Group, the California-based crime analysis training organization that instructed Caulfield.

Originally the domain of big-city police departments and federal and state agencies, the analysis is being incorporated into hundreds of small and mid-size law enforcement agencies as technology and training became more available and affordable.

A 2005 survey of Illinois police chiefs shows only 1 in 10 respondents said his department had a crime analysis unit, according to results released this year by the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority. Of those, roughly half had computerized mapping capability.

Departments in Chicago, Palatine, Schaumburg, Tinley Park, Oak Lawn and West Chicago, among others, have been trained in Gottlieb's analysis techniques.

"Typically we train over a thousand people a year ... all around the world," said Gottlieb, who has been teaching crime analysis full time since 1995. But "I still get units who are just starting a crime analysis program."

This high-tech approach to crime fighting is light years ahead of past methods, said Caulfield, a 32-year department veteran. "You [used to] sit down, put pins in a map and then hope you were close."

Now, to help determine who might commit certain crimes, Kane police analyze recent patterns to identify a potential suspect's method of operation. Then they link those methods to other crimes or determine through geographic profiling the most likely time, day and location of the next target.

Using police records, authorities home in on who is doing what, when, where and how they are doing it, and the type of victims they are targeting, Gottlieb said. "Once we focus on a particular individual, these [computing and mapping] techniques will give police a two-thirds chance that he should strike again within this date, time and location."

In addition, authorities use police reports to identify common factors such as poor street lighting, unlocked vehicles or open garage doors that likely make some people more likely to become targets.

In the case of the car burglaries, Caulfield advised patrol divisions to be on the lookout. "Lo and behold, they found some activity" and made an arrest, he said.

Previously, the probability of accurately predicting crime varied by officer and investigator and depended largely on what Caulfield called "good old-fashioned police work," including reliance on trusted snitches. "I wouldn't want to guess what it [the probability] was," he said.

This year will be the baseline for establishing the extent to which some crimes can be forecast in unincorporated Kane, said Caulfield, who eventually sees the technology being used directly from squad cars.

"We're actually in our infancy with this and just taking baby steps," he said.

Still, "the best result is arresting somebody who is committing a crime," he said. "The next best thing is not to have him committing the crime at all."

Copyright 2007 Chicago Tribune

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