Jared Savage

Jared Savage is the New Zealand Herald's investigations editor.

Winning the war on crime: A step ahead of criminals

Swift analysis can help police try to stop crimes and even catch offenders in the act. Jared Savage investigates.

The technological upgrade is the latest step in the Prevention First policy implemented by Commissioner Peter Marshall. Photo / Dean Purcell
The technological upgrade is the latest step in the Prevention First policy implemented by Commissioner Peter Marshall. Photo / Dean Purcell

Imagine this. Your house has been broken into again, the second time this month. You come home to find the lounge doors wide open, the burglars jimmied open a side window to get inside. Expensive goods which are easy to flog - TV, laptops, video games, camera - are all gone.

You ring the police and the crime is logged. More information comes up on the police computer screen. They know the house was burgled just a few weeks ago and what was taken. They also know that someone who lives around the corner was targeted that same night. And there's been six other burglaries in the neighbourhood since then, with a decent description of a suspect in one case.

Armed with this information, the commanding officer on duty can make some decisions. Change a patrol route to canvass the area, be on the look-out for the suspect, and check the house that was burgled after yours last time.

This is the future of New Zealand policing. The Auckland City, Waitemata and Counties Manukau districts are already building control centres referred to by some as the "War Room" but officially known as district command centres.

Crime science is not rocket science, says Mark Evans, the director of police intelligence. Nor is crime random.

"All the analysis tells us that if 'A' happened and 'B' happened, then there is a heightened risk that 'C' may happen in the next 60 minutes, following day or next week. Which allows senior staff to allocate their resources better," says Mr Evans.

It's a predictive policing model made possible by technology, used by trained analysts and driven by commanders with a clear mandate to reduce offending. In years gone by, trends in crime would often be analysed months later. Now, huge computing power means the data will be crunched in real time, or close to it. "Ten years ago, we couldn't do that. Five years ago, we couldn't do that because it would be too expensive," says Mr Evans.

"But better software means we are starting to do this now without spending millions and millions of dollars. And that's a huge advantage to police deciding what to do with their resources.

"It's really about empowering the frontline, helping officers to be in the right place at the right time."

The technological upgrade is the latest step in the Prevention First policy implemented by Commissioner Peter Marshall, of which Mr Evans has played an important role.

The Welshman came to New Zealand in 2007 after stints as a British intelligence officer during the Gulf War and 15 years with the Northern Irish police, including helping to drive an overhaul of the service for which he was awarded an OBE.

He is a strong advocate of crime science, the ability to prevent crime before it happens, and came to New Zealand at a time when the police hierarchy were receptive to a new way of thinking.

We meet in the classrooms of the Jill Dando Institute of Crime Science at University College, London, where Mr Evans has been teaching for several weeks while on a break from his police work.

The institute was set up 11 years ago in memory of the murdered BBC journalist and is renowned for research dedicated to cutting crime through architecture, engineering, economics, statistics and town planning.

The founding director, Professor Gloria Laycock, recently visited New Zealand for a month training analysts.

Crime science is not "wishy washy", says Mr Evans and is based on proving "or disproving" hypotheses through experimentation.

"Science will tell you clever things about crime," says Mr Evans.

"With burglary, you're at a heightened risk of a repeat break-in for the next six to eight weeks. But not just you, your neighbours too.

"This is about trying to understand a problem, to gain insight from the data, then use that information to decide how to make the best use of resources."

An example is the "hotspot" maps obtained by the Herald last year of locations in Auckland where cars are most likely to be stolen or broken into. A simple formula of identifying repeat criminals, victims and locations - the crime triangle - means police are sending staff to the right place at the right time.

In this case, it was a number of car- park buildings with poor security.

Across the country, regular intelligence-driven "tasking" meetings chaired by local commanders focus on emerging and priority crime and criminals.

Police are also analysing the crime data to work with industries at repeat risk such as petrol stations, supermarkets and retailers.

At a national level, action is co-ordinated by a police prevention group while district staff use the same information to take action on specific problems in their own areas.

The publicly stated goal is a 13 per cent reduction in crime over four years by 2014. Statistics for 2012 released this week show a 7.4 per cent reduction on the previous year, a total of 376,013 down from 406,056. The figures are the lowest in 24 years.

The results were lauded by the police hierarchy but critics pointed to poor resolution rates for crime.

Burglaries had been cut by 11.1 per cent but just 14 per cent were solved. Vehicle theft was down 14.1 per cent, but just 11.5 per cent were resolved.

Acting Police Commissioner Viv Rickard defended the resolution rates, saying the focus is on reducing crime.

"We believe that it's better to have fewer victims of crime than it is to let people commit crimes then be good at catching them afterwards. Our most important job is to prevent crime from occurring."

To do that, Mr Evans says, spending time with repeat victims, giving them advice to protect themselves, is crucial to reducing the overall crime statistics.

"A very small part of the population get victimised repeatedly. So if you can make a big effort with them, you can make a significant solution to the problem."

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- NZ Herald

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