Can Machines Predict Where Crimes Are about to Happen?

In cities across the U.S., data-rich computer technology is telling cops where crimes are about to happen. Crime is down, and the technology is spreading. But does it really work?
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Illustration by Harry Campbell

Patrolman joseph cunningham and I are hunting for criminals. not just any crooks but home burglars. And not just anywhere: although the city of Memphis covers 315 square miles, our search area has been narrowed to just a few square blocks of low brick apartment buildings in a crime-plagued part of town. The search date and time, too, have been tightly defined—Thursday, between 4 p.m. and 10 p.m. The shift begins now. “I don’t anticipate any car chases tonight, but if one happens, be sure to put your seat belt on,” Cunningham says as we pull out from the station.

In squad car number 6540, Cunningham and I reach the area that his report has flagged. We are scouting for would-be burglars in general—“I’m looking for people who look like they don’t have a place to go,” Cunningham explains—and one suspect in particular: a man named Devin who may be behind a recent spate of break-ins in the area. Cunningham pulls up Devin’s picture on a dashboard-mounted touch screen.

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