Can Latin America see greater success in reducing urban crime and violence by emphasizing data collection and analysis? InSight Crime takes a look at three such initiatives in the region.
Uruguay: Employing Software to Predict Robberies
In Uruguay's capital city Montevideo, police are using a software program called PredPol to predict when and where crimes are most likely to occur. The software, which was developed by a team of mathematicians and social scientists at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), is designed to help police plan their patrols by identifying likely crime hotspots.
The program works by continually incorporating information from police reports to predict new crime hotspots. Dr. George Mohler, a member of the team that developed PredPol, told InSight Crime that police officers can "pull up an iPad or mobile phone and get a set of hotspots they should patrol right now, in their beat, that's designed specifically for the crime patterns that are happening in the neighborhood they're patrolling."
Police departments in several US cities -- including Los Angeles, Santa Cruz, and Atlanta -- currently use PredPol, but Montevideo is the first Latin American city to employ the software.
Ricardo Fraiman, the coordinator for the Citizen Security Program at Uruguay's Interior Ministry, told InSight Crime that the Montevideo police department plans to use the program both to predict crime hotspots and to improve how police patrols are organized. The software "is another tool we can use to complement our strategies to reduce crime and violence," Fraiman said.
PredPol can be used to predict likely hotspots for a variety of crimes, including burglaries, robberies, auto theft, and gun violence hotspots, as long as there is enough data to train the models. Police in Montevideo are using the software to predict armed robberies and pickpocketing, since these crimes have a direct impact on perceptions of security in the city.
"The feeling of insecurity in Montevideo is based on the fear of being robbed with a weapon on the street," Fraiman said. "This doesn't mean this is the most common crime, but it is evidently the one that generates insecurity."
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Montevideo tested PredPol in a few police precincts in 2014, and there are plans to implement the program in half of the city's police precincts this year. Although the city has yet to conduct an in-depth evaluation of the results obtained using PredPol, Fraiman said police have seen a reduction in their target crimes when they use the program.
In Los Angeles, where the Police Department's Foothill division employs the software, crimes decreased by 20 percent in the first six months of 2014, compared to the same period the year before, according to statistics provided by PredPol. Meanwhile, the Santa Cruz Police Department saw an 11 percent drop in burglaries and 27 percent drop in robberies during the first year the program was employed.
Colombia: Using Homicide Data to Shape Policies
Last year, Cali registered its largest drop in homicides in 20 years, the greatest decrease of any city in Colombia. There are several factors contributing to this, including a possible truce allegedly brokered between rival criminal groups in December 2013. Yet another factor may well be the city's development of a crime prevention strategy based on analysis of homicide data.
Cali's current mayor, Rodrigo Guerrero, first took office in 1992. Faced with a murder rate above 120 per 100,000, Guerrero used his training as an epidemiologist to collect data on where and when homicides were taking place. When the data revealed that most homicides happened on the weekends, often tied to alcohol consumption -- instead of drug trafficking, which had been the prevailing theory -- and disproportionately committed by young people, Guerrero acted accordingly. He placed restrictions on alcohol sales, instated curfews for youth in dangerous neighborhoods, and made it illegal to carry a weapon on weekends and holidays.
This approach proved highly effective. During the times when both the gun and alcohol restrictions were in place, homicides decreased by 35 percent, according to a study in the American Journal of Epidemiology. By 1997, the murder rate had fallen to 80 per 100,000.
When Guerrero returned to office in 2012, he implemented the same strategy to prevent crime. Cali Government Secretary Laura Lugo told InSight Crime that once a week, a council comprised of representatives from different government entities meets to review all of the homicides that occurred during the previous seven days. Lugo said the council classifies homicides by their location, the time at which they occurred, and the motive. This information is then used to guide law enforcement, as well as the social programs meant to address violence.
SEE ALSO: Coverage of Homicides
The data shows a large proportion of homicides occur early on Sunday mornings and are often tied to alcohol and fights, Lugo told InSight Crime. As a result, the city has once again implemented a curfew -- from 11 p.m. to 5 a.m. -- for young people in at-risk neighborhoods and prohibited residents in these areas from carrying weapons without a permit.
Felipe Montoya, from the city agency Desepaz -- which deals with development and security issues -- told InSight Crime that the municipal government has prioritized seven high-risk neighborhoods based on homicide rates, poverty levels, and school dropout figures. Analysis of this data has guided the implementation of the city's social initiatives -- including educational, health, and sports programs -- in these areas.
"All of these social strategies have allowed us to reduce homicides," Lugo told InSight Crime.
So far this year, Cali seems to be on track to further reduce murders. January registered 19 percent fewer homicides than the same month last year, according to Lugo.
Chile: Locating Crime Hotspots with Computer Models
In Chile, a group of researchers at the Center for Analysis and Modeling of Security (CEAMOS), which is sponsored by the Universidad de Chile, are developing a computer program similar to PredPol, in order to predict the areas where crimes are most likely to occur. CEAMOS director Raul Manasevich told InSight Crime that although there are already programs like PredPol on the market, the CEAMOS team wants to develop software specifically designed for Latin American crime patterns.
"A crime prediction method needs to have local considerations," he said. "It's not simply a question of arriving at a place, taking [a program] from elsewhere, and applying it."
In the past, CEAMOS has also collaborated with the Chile's national police, the Carabineros, in capital city Santiago, in order re-examine the city's assignation of police beats. The research center is currently looking into possible projects using Chile's new crime database, the Unified Data Bank (BUD), which will allow the country's security forces and several ministries to share and exchange information.