SASKATOON – It’s a pioneering program that will help police get out in front of crime before it happens. Thursday marked the official launch of a Predictive Analytics Laboratory, the future in policing and Saskatchewan is leading the country.
The lab, a joint venture between the provincial government, the University of Saskatchewan and the Saskatoon Police Service began operating on Nov. 15, 2015.
It is housed in a secure facility at the Saskatoon Police Service (SPS) headquarters and essentially the lab will take complex data and simplify it, finding patterns that could predict behaviours for police.
“We may see something that appears to be out of line, a pattern but it’s really hard to explain,” said Deputy Chief Bernie Pannell, who is in charge of administration at SPS.
“If we’ve got some mathematical proof, some experts who are saying ‘this is definitely a pattern’, it’s really going to help us in doing what we do.”
The lab will begin by using SPS data but will be able to accommodate information from other law enforcement agencies from throughout Saskatchewan and eventually the country.
Work on missing persons and identifying common factors behind run-away behaviour will be the first initiative to get underway at the lab.
In 2014, more than 2,700 missing persons reports were filed with SPS. According to Pannell, 2,000 of those cases were youth, 700 adults and in 90 cases the individual had gone missing three times or more. In one case, the individual had been reported missing up to 50 times.
“If we’ve got certain predictors that show that a person does ‘x,y,z’ when they go missing,” explained Pannell
“We might be able to intervene between y and z and take some actions.”
Getting individuals the right help at the right time like the assistance of child services said Pannell. It would also save police services time and resources since each case needs to be investigated, an occurrence report filed and follow-up by the officer.
Children will be the team’s first focus then adults but the powers of predictive analytic and data mining don’t stop there.
“One could look at domestic violence, violence in general. Basically anything that pertains to community safety so how do we move from just reacting on the criminal side but also to do some interventions to prevent serious crimes from happening,” said Brian Rector, executive director, research and evidence-based excellence with the Ministry of Justice.
Sound familiar? Hollywood brought it to the big screen in 2002 with Minority Report featuring Tom Cruise. The plot was set in Washington D.C. where for six years that city had been murder free thanks to astounding technology that identified killers before they committed their crime.
While preventing crime from happening, predator or prey is the overall goal of the lab. Pannell says the fundamentals of policing aren’t about to change.
“Our powers of arrest are going to be exactly the same in the future as what they are right now,” he said.
“If there’s no grounds for arrest the person won’t be arrested.”
The lab is the first of it’s kind in country however there are similar strategies are already being used by police departments in the United States. Concerns regarding predictive policing so far in those jurisdictions are the potential for police to profile even damage the department’s rapport with the public.
“We would expect our partners to behave in an ethical fashion with the results of our research and applies to any sort of research.” said Stephen Wormith, director for the Centre for Forensic Behavioural Science and Justice Studies at the University of Saskatchewan.
“At the end of the day when we’re talking about prediction per-say about criminal behavior, the benefits far outweigh the cost and risks in our view.”
Height and skin colour aren’t considered predictive variables, experts say the most likely person to commit a crime is someone who done so in the past.