Thursday, December 23, 2010
With one of the highest murder rates in the country, the Salinas Police Department envisions a day when it can stop some violent crime before it starts.
According to SPD Deputy Chief Kelly McMillin, teenagers and twenty-somethings commit most of the violence in Salinas, but they’re often hard to track because most have few previous contacts with law enforcement.
“But we believe there are other markers, data we’re not mining, to tell us who’s doing the crimes,” says McMillin, naming things like truancy, grades and accessing behavioral services as a few of those markers.
Instead of relying on guesswork to determine what the early warning signs are, he’s talking to two former military contractors who say their company, Olympic Behavior Labs of Seattle, has the technology to both predict who is at risk for committing violent crime and to provide school officials, law enforcement, or counselors the real time information they need to immediately step in when a kid takes the wrong path.
“It’s an early warning system to help people before it’s too late,” OBL Chief Technology Officer Steve Trubow says.
“We developed it in Iraq,” he adds. “We were trying to pick out people who were most apt to plant a bomb under one of our vehicles.”
OBL Program Manager Rocky Kendall says he also developed computer systems for the Air Force that allowed different parts of the organization to communicate so they could make better decisions about when to re-supply, take action or move their airplanes.
“The heart of this information management system is you have a group that is separated in time and space, yet they have to communicate and share information,” Kendall says.
In Salinas, Trubow and Kendall would add school data to that of law enforcement and social services to create what he calls his Early Warning Portal. They would look at 10 years of data to develop an algorithm that would determine the shared characteristics and experiences of people who commit violent crimes in Salinas.
If it showed, for example, that kids whose grades drop and who get suspended from school are most at risk of violence, the OBL system would notify officials who could help before trouble starts, Trubow says.
Working in partnership with IBM, Trubow says he’s devised a way to remove names from the database so that sharing it complies with stringent federal privacy rules.
Still, the proposal sends chills down the spines of civil libertarians.
“Can you imagine being a student, and having some agent of the government say we’ve identified you as someone who’s going to commit a crime?” asks local attorney and ACLU activist Michelle Welsh.
Welsh says she wants to know how OBL gets its information, who has access to it, and how it would be used.
McMillin agrees details need to be worked out; the city has made no decision to move forward with the system.
Trubow is selling the idea of information sharing to stop crime hard at the Department of Justice, at the U.S. Congress where he testified before a House Judiciary subcommittee last year, and in troubled cities like Salinas.
Trubow won’t say what his system costs, but McMillin is sure Salinas can’t afford it; he hopes federal grant money comes in if the city decides to move forward.
Next month, Trubow will be in Salinas and San Jose for hands-on demonstrations of the system. He also plans to show it off at the DOJ’s Office of Juvenile Justice.