Panorama: Key crime – The algorithm that predicts where and when robberies will take place

A pharmacy in Viale Monte Rosa, semi-central Milan, 12 noon: three elderly people are queuing at the counter inside, two men loitering suspiciously outside. They wear baggy jackets not suitable for the mild temperature. One is short and fat, with long black curls; the is other tall and muscular and hasn’t shaved for a few days. Shortly before the pharmacy closes, a man approaches, looks around and moves to go in. In the blink of an eye, the two in the jackets close in and handcuff him. They are agents of the “hawks” of the Milan police force’s mobile squad. Amedeo B., 35 years old, ends up in prison. He had a toy pistol in his pocket and several robberies to his credit in city pharmacies.The cops did not know his name, but they had gathered enough information about him that they knew exactly where, with what weapon, on what day and at what time he would attempt his next robbery. A prediction of the crime, which Panorama witnessed live, and which is now common practice in the Lombard capital. This is all thanks to software, a computer program called Key crime, which analyzes thousands of data points on certain types of crime series and predicts their evolution. This frequently allows officers to be at the site of the next robbery before the suspect and to arrest him in the act of committing the crime.

It is the next frontier in the fight against crime, so-called “predictive policing”. In the United States, the FBI is analyzing with interest similar experiments adopted by some local police forces, such as that of Santa Cruz, California. Where the computer analysis of the crimes committed allows you to guide patrols in the streets in the more risky hours. Overseas the use of information technology to fight crime dates back to 1995, when in New York the mayor Rudolph Giuliani had the New York police department adopt Compstat, a program that studied crime statistics to organize the response of the police. Today some American universities collaborate with various police departments to create algorithms that support the work of agents in their activity, summarized in the motto “to protect and to serve”. Perhaps in the future it will be necessary to add “to predict”. The weekly news magazine, Time, in November 2011, included the Santa Cruz predictive policing software among the 50 most important inventions of the year.

But the Italian police, at least on this front, are years ahead. Because, instead of analyzing only historical crime data, it focuses on the perpetrator. If it’s a serial robber, they will certainly repeat their actions. Once the robber has been identified, even without knowing his personal data, Key crime studies his behavior and predicts his actions. A Philip K. Dick-like future that Steven Spielberg showed us in the film Minority report? Not really, more simply the use of technology applied to the daily work of cops which, in its substance, has been unchanged for centuries.

Agatha Christie wrote in 1936: “Every crime reveals many things. Our methods, our tastes, our habits are revealed by our actions”. That’s right: every criminal event reveals a great deal of information to those who know how to understand it. For some time now, the men of the Milan police headquarters have developed a specific protocol where, for each robbery, up to 20,000 data elements are entered. They say that 60 clues can be obtained from just 3 seconds of video from a surveillance camera. Historical data, testimonies and analysis of closed-circuit videos make it possible to reconstruct, for example, the height, color of clothing, gait, which hand holds the weapon, the robber’s accent and even how they smell.

In 2007, when the Key crime trial began, the Milan police headquarters solved approximately 27 percent of robbery cases. The following year, thanks to the software, the successfully solved cases increased to 45 percent. And the increase has been impressive because, with every serial robber who is arrested, his ability to commit further crimes is interrupted.

Not only that, thanks to Key crime the guilty will serve the sentence for all the crimes he has committed. In fact, every time a robber is arrested with the help of Key crime, it becomes possible to attribute other crimes to him that were previously unsolved.

The software was designed, tested and patented by an assistant chief of police, Mario Venturi, on duty at the Milan police headquarters. With some colleagues, and at no cost to the Interior Ministry, he has enriched the database of serial criminals every day. And today, after years of experimentation, Key crime is ready to evolve. The software will in fact be equipped with new tools that will enable it to “think”, to attribute a different weight to the information that it is called upon to process. And in July, Key crime even reached the United States. Giovanni Mastrobuoni, an economist that specializes in public safety, professor at the Carlo Alberto College of Turin and at the University of Essex in Great Britain, has in fact analyzed the application of the software and on July 26 he presented his study to the Economics of Crime Working Group of the Massachusetts National Bureau of Economic Research.

“We can estimate” says Mastrobuoni “that in a metropolis the size of Milan, Rome or Naples, if police and carabinieri were to use Key crime, there would be 1,000 fewer robberies a year and 3 million euros in loot would be saved”.

Mastrobuoni’s study also highlighted how the comparison between the police (who use Key crime) and the carabinieri (who instead use more traditional tools) in the repression of serial robberies of banks, pharmacies and commercial establishments in the province of Milan is very biased in favor of the police. Mysteriously, however, the investigative tool hasn’t managed to go beyond via Fatebenefratelli, the headquarters of the police in Milan. Although it has been presented several times at the Interior Ministry, Key crime is not disseminated or shared with other police headquarters or police forces. Yet, by changing some parameters, it could be applied to any type of serial crime, such as sexual violence.

Those who have been able to appreciate the results of Key crime up close are the Deputy Chief of Police, Alessandro Marangoni who, between 2010 and 2012, was the police chief of Milan. It may be that with such a high-ranking sponsor the police will manage to win over the reluctance towards new technologies, especially when they are self-produced and at no cost.

Illustration by Guido Rosa

It also a desire of Felice Romano, general secretary of Siulp, the largest police union. “Programs like Key crime” underlines Romano “integrate technology with the work of the agent and are an effective resource, which must be developed, given the scarcity of resources available and the 13,000 fewer active police officers than the optimal force size”.
Low force numbers and ongoing budgetary constraints could be helped out by a very productive cyber “cop”.”How It Works”A. The camera records a robbery at a pharmacy in Milan: it captures the robber’s image, records his physical characteristics.
B. The robber is about 30 years old, he limps a bit, he wears a cap to cover his face, he uses a knife as a weapon.
C. All the data of the crime, including that collected through witnesses, are stored on a computer at the police headquarters in Milan: day, time, place of the robbery, as well as the features of the robber, his way of acting, his clothing and even how he smells.
D. Key crime, a sophisticated computer system used in the police station, processes the data and compares them with those of all the other robberies of recent times, carried out against pharmacies or other commercial establishments. An algorithm identifies all the possible objectives of the following months, indicating precisely the place, date and time of the new, potential robberies.
E. The police station sends one or more plainclothes agents to the scene to prevent the new crime: in this case the serial robber of the pharmacies was stopped as he was about to strike in Viale Monte Rosa. It is estimated that, in a metropolis the size of Milan, Rome or Naples, if the police and carabinieri used Key crime, there would be a thousand fewer robberies a year and 3 million euros in loot would be saved.
Source: Panorama