A new police lab in Saskatoon is the first of its kind in Canada to use statistical data to predict criminal behavior.
It’s not what people typically picture when they hear “crime lab”–instead of fancy equipment, the lab consists of an office with tables and chairs.
That’s because it is a predictive analytics laboratory, where University of Saskatchewan academics scrutinize social, health and criminal justice information to detect trends with the goal of preventing crime.
Describing his 40 years of notebooks filled with data, Deputy Chief Bernie Pannell said there is so much police information that gets stuck in occurrence reports and filed away.
“And we aren’t using an awful lot of that information. In the past, police haven’t been very good at sharing data, haven’t been very good at using it. We are getting much better but we’re still nowhere near what this level is going to take us to,” he said.
Director for the Centre for Forensic Behavioral Science and Justice Studies at the U of S, Stephen Wormith, said his researchers are used to collecting basic information at a micro level to study things like offender recidivism. He said the new lab affords them all types of new opportunities for research.
“With the amounts of data and the variability of sources of the data that we would have access to, this would give us an opportunity to perhaps be more accurate in our predictions,” Wormith said.
On Thursday, a signing ceremony made the partnership between the Saskatoon Police Service, the University of Saskatchewan and the Ministry of Corrections and Policing official.
The lab has been operating since November. It is currently using data to determine how likely a child is to go missing in order to prevent it from happening.
Police received 2,700 missing person reports last year, according to Pannell. He said about 90 of those people had been missing more than three times.
“There’s got to be some way of us preventing it. From the police point of view, it’s kind of hard for just us to do it, but once we get our partners involved the sky’s the limit.”
“If we’ve got certain predictors that show that if a person does x, y and z they’re going to be going missing, we may be able to intervene between y and z,” Pannell said.
The lab could also work to protect victims, he said. For example, statistical information could lead police and other agencies, like social services, to intervene before a domestic assault takes place.
When asked about the ethics of intervening before a crime is committed, Pannell said if there is no grounds for arrest, the person won’t be arrested.
Depending on what the lab reveals, he indicated that heightened surveillance could be warranted instead. Pannell said the initiative would not involve any type of racial profiling.
“This is data that we already have. But they are taking a look at it and seeing whether the data that we have has got some predictors, some connectors, with future behavior.”