(Bloomberg View) -- Whenever violent crime gets out of hand in Rio de Janeiro, as it frequently has, the public glare has fallen on the harried police force. The overtaxed lawmen's familiar refrain: "Police are not omnipresent," a disclaimer that doubled as a labor grievance. The only way to keep up with the city's busy criminals, so the argument went, was for authorities to put more boots on the ground and allow cops to power up to keep pace with the bandits' increasingly sophisticated arsenal.
Now, thanks to long overdue tech-based breakthroughs in police practices, the tired tropes about public safety could soon be history. Recently, Rio's authorities teamed with crime experts and concerned business leaders to launch a major data-based crime monitoring tool, ISPGeo, that allows police to scope out crime in Brazil's signature city at the click of a mouse. Properly used, experts say crime mapping will help authorities better understand patterns of illicit activity and so optimize scarce security resources. That's a potential godsend in Brazil and other conflagrated regions of Latin America, where budgets are chronically short and street violence prospers.
Ok, so what took Rio so long? After all, the benefits of crime mapping are well known. In 1994 New York City launched its pioneering CompStat platform, which displayed the crime blotter on computerized satellite maps, and recently unlocked its data base to the public. Many cities around the world have followed New York's lead, and most have seen significant reductions of street crime, according to University College London's Spencer Chainey, who studies policing in Latin America and the Caribbean basin. "I constantly hear from police who say there is nothing they can do, because robbery is due to the political crisis or unemployment," Chainey told me. "But the police can do something."
What stands out in Rio is not the fancy technology, but a cultural shift. A new generation of police, tech-savvy engineers and security experts has joined to mine big data to target shifting urban trouble spots, enabling police strategists to deploy patrols across precincts that rarely shared information or coordinated policing.
Just ramping up the computerized system took some bureaucratic bushwhacking -- modernizing outdated city maps, evangelizing police and end-running government restrictions on temporary hiring by outsourcing computer programming. "Everything in public service is an obstacle," Joana Monteiro, head of Rio's Institute of Public Security, told me. With help from an independent think tank, the Igarape Institute, and seed money from the private sector, Monteiro persevered, and Rio state's 78,000-strong police force, including beat cops and investigators, can tap data for 40 different crimes, refreshed daily.
Although the experiment in Rio has just begun, initial results are telling: Half of all robberies in metropolitan Rio occurred in just two percent of the city's area last year, the crime statisticians found. Such findings challenge some cherished conceits about public safety and could serve to disrupt bureaucratic claques whose turf wars have stymied citywide crime fighting. One classic example in Rio is the longstanding rivalry between military police, who patrol the streets, and civil police, tasked with crime investigation.
It's a problem Rio military police captain Leonardo Graciano knows only too well. Graciano crunches numbers for the Baixada Fluminense, a sprawling lowland district of greater metropolitan Rio with nearly half a million residents and some 3,000 thousand reported crimes a month. Until recently, police recorded crimes on paper forms and a six-officer team typed them onto the computer spread sheets, finally charting the data with the help of Google Maps. "It could take weeks for us to plot criminal activity, and by then the criminals had migrated," Graciano told me. "Now I can update the maps myself, cross-referencing a number of crimes, and it takes a few hours."
The new mapping tool helped Graciano detect and shut down unseen crime corridors, such as the one used by a ring of thieves who boosted cars in one neighborhood and sent them to chop shops in a slum, miles away. "Crime mapping is like shining a spotlight on the city," said Claudio Beato, secretary of Public Safety for Belo Horizonte, the capital city of Minas Gerais, the state that pioneered data-based crime analysis in Brazil. "Incredible as it seems, police often don't know where crime hotspots are until they see them mapped out."
"Information has helped break down artificial barriers, which itself is kind of a revolution," said Robert Muggah, of Igarape Institute. In crime-torn Rio, with some delay, the information revolution has begun.
(About the author: Mac Margolis writes about Latin America for Bloomberg View. He was a reporter for Newsweek and is the author of “The Last New World: The Conquest of the Amazon Frontier.”)
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