Police aim to predict crime in Petaluma

Elevating to a high-tech level the idea that people are creatures of habit, Petaluma police will soon have their own crime analyst who will be able to pinpoint trends — and perhaps even predict when and where criminal activity is likely to occur.

Sonoma County’s third-largest police jurisdiction, behind the Sheriff’s Office and Santa Rosa Police, has been “behind the times” in its ability to analyze and identify crime trends and patterns, Lt. Ken Savano said.

Better information-gathering and information-sharing capabilities can help the department be more efficient, effective and transparent with the public, he said. It can also arm residents with real-time information about what’s happening in their neighborhoods.

The City Council on Monday unanimously approved the department’s request to contract with BAIR Analytics of Colorado to create a full-time, in-house crime analyst position. Its $111,000 annual cost will be funded from casino impact fees, asset seizure proceeds and money the state gives local jurisdictions to track low-level offenders as part of prison realignment.

The Sheriff’s Office has one in-house crime analyst and Santa Rosa police have two, who all use software programs from BAIR, or Behavioral Analysis Intelligence Resources. The analysts are able to use information gathered through crime reports, field investigations and detective work to build — and share — powerful databases that can help monitor repeat offenders, point out crime hot-spots and detect trends unrecognizable through manual inspection of reports.

Analytics from BAIR helped capture the Cotton Ball Bandit in San Rafael who is suspected of robbing seven banks before he was caught last year.

“They were able to predict the day of the week and the time of the day the bank robber would hit again, and (the analyst) was dead on,” Savano said. “That type of technology and that type of analytical resources and abilities, we currently do not have.”

Using data from previous robberies, San Rafael police were able to deploy their officers in a calculated, pinpoint fashion, police Chief Diana Bishop said. She declined to be more specific because the case hasn’t yet gone to court.

This “intelligence-led policing” raises Big Brother-type concerns for some.

“Is everything I’m going to be doing now going to be entered into some data bank somewhere?” Councilwoman Teresa Barrett asked.

“I like the idea of being able to establish a pattern and predict where this might happen based on a given pattern of existing activity. I don’t like it when it goes ‘Minority Report’ on me and we start thinking ‘This person fits the profile of someone who might do that crime.’ ”

Police are sensitive to those concerns, Savano said, but also see the public-safety value in identifying repeated behaviors or comparing known offenders’ methods of operation with new crimes.

“If we had a child molester who hangs out by schools and we had an incident by a school, why wouldn’t we check our known sex offenders? That’s prudent police work,” he said.

Mayor David Glass was concerned by an explanation of the program that included an example about “apprehending criminals” rather than “suspects.”

That presumption of innocence is important for “community values,” he said, citing the Andy Lopez case last year in Santa Rosa, in which a sheriff’s deputy shot and killed a 13-year-old boy who turned toward him with what turned out to be a plastic replica of an assault rifle.

“This may not be what happened, but to me, if there’s a culture of presumption of guilt rather than a presumption of innocence, you get to a crisis point a lot sooner and may be tragically wrong,” he said.

Ultimately, the council voted 6-0, with Chris Albertson absent, to approve a three-year contract with BAIR. It will be reviewed as part of the annual budgeting process.

Savano said the analyst could be on the job early next year.

You can reach Lori A. Carter at 762-7297 or lori.carter@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @loriacarter.