Television shows typically depict police officers cracking cases and making busts, and even the nightly news usually focuses on the manhunt of the moment. This sometimes obscures the fact that crime prevention is one of the most important duties of law enforcement along with law enforcement, assistance to victims of crime, public order maintenance, and emergency response. By its very nature crime prevention draws fewer headlines—but, given the choice, most people would rather not be a victim in the first place, rather than see someone who committed an offence punished. There are a number of traditional crime prevention methods that will always be important: genuine engagement between police departments, and the communities they serve; social programs in high risk areas; a justice system oriented toward rehabilitating offenders. However, those who took a bachelor’s degree in a public safety related field more than five years ago might be surprised to see how much data science is now taught in these programs. Recognizing this truth, today’s blog focuses on a core component in the curriculum of Wilfrid Laurier University’s online Combined Honours Bachelor of Arts in Criminology and Policing program: data analysis.
Can data really help crime prevention?
Did you know that big data plays a major role in preventing crime and promoting modern safety?
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Crime Prevention and Big Data
In our earlier blog post Keeping Canada Prepared: Careers in Public Safety GIS & Data Analytics, we described how Public Safety Canada and other security agencies use data analysis to protect citizens from disasters, both natural and human-derived. Now cities with major crime concerns are applying analytics-based principles to tackle their problems. For example, Chicago recently launched a “pre-crime” initiative.[i] Although police have long collected data to understand patterns in criminal behaviour, pre-crime provides real-time tactical suggestions via a geographic prediction tool. IBM explains:
At-risk areas are highlighted on-screen, while recommendations for evasive action (such as deploying a high visibility police patrol car to take stock of the situation and deter criminals) are displayed alongside. This information is collated into a ‘decision support system’, made available to individual police officers on the beat.
The initiative’s partnership between Chicago Police Department and Chicago University Urban Labs, shows how closely academia and law enforcement have become aligned—a clear example of why online criminology and public safety programs are now a common route into the field.
Cybercrime also demands an expert understanding of the digital realm. New techniques are emerging to reliably detect red flags amid the massive volume of social media postings, while criminologists now frequently contribute to online security assessments.
Situational Crime Prevention (SCP)
Situational Crime Prevention is a sociologically-oriented approach. It can include, at a basic level, simple safety precautions (Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design, or CPTED) as well as macro-scale community planning initiatives. In a recent brief, the Canadian Council on Social Development discussed one such community crime prevention program in the high risk area of Kirkholt, UK:
Under the program, the physical condition of the area was improved by installing locks and new lighting in vulnerable points of entry. As well, small groups of neighbours were encouraged to create "cocoons" where they would look out for each others' property. Compared to the surrounding area, Kirkholt experienced a 58% drop in residential burglaries in one year, and a total reduction of 75% over four years.[ii]
Data analysis was key on both ends in this case: first, crime statistics had to be collected in order to identify an appropriate neighbourhood for the pilot program; then the statistics had to be monitored to evaluate whether it worked. As the CCSD brief notes, despite broad uptake, studies have shown that some other popular police programs such as Neighbourhood Watch have actually had no measurable effect on crime. Data analysis provides law enforcement and community stakeholders with actionable, empirical evidence, which is often at odds with public perception.
Joining the Fight: Online Criminology Programs and Bachelor’s Degrees in Law Enforcement
Over the next few years, police officers will begin to retire in large numbers, opening up many new opportunities for those about to pursue a bachelor’s degree in criminology or law enforcement. Online public safety degrees like those offered at Laurier provide students with an up-to-date tool set, including an understanding of data analysis. An online criminology or public safety program also offers those looking to get into the field, or those already in the field, a means of improving their skills and knowledge without losing time on the job. While not all departments require new hires to possess a bachelor’s degree in policing or criminology, increasing competition from university graduates is likely to squeeze out less highly-educated applicants.
Learn more about Laurier’s online BA in Criminology and Policing