Good day for a robbery

Garvin McCain claims he can tell you when it's safe to go outside

"I had a bunch of data from prisons based on this hypothesis, and it just didn't work worth a damn," McCain recalls.

What the professor's analysis did show--after he'd crunched some "real, down-to-earth data" from Dallas and Fort Worth police--was distinct patterns to crime. From those patterns, McCain believes he can develop a means of predicting where crime will occur, but says, "I don't want to stick my neck out just yet."

Dallas police, however, are not impressed with McCain's prognostications. Crime forecasting, they say, is something police have used for years.

"So what if you can say we're going to have three homicides and 25 burglaries?" says Sgt. Jim Chandler, a Dallas police spokesman. "That's something we can already do based on historical data. We know crime is going to happen, but we need to know where and when so we can prevent it."

Chandler says the Dallas police Crime Analysis Unit enters criminal data into computers, and technicians "analyze it, massage it, do whatever they can so that we can deploy our manpower based on crime and the number of calls."

Chandler recalls how police were able to combat a rash of 7-Eleven robberies in the '70s after analyzing the day of the week, time of day, and location of previous robberies to determine where the next robbery was most likely to happen. But again, he says, "That's based on historical data--that's not just a forecast."

One danger to crime forecasts such as those devised by McCain is their potential to fuel hysteria. "It tends to feed and support the fear factor, because there's nothing you can do with the data once you've got it," Chandler says.

Mark Stallo, a sergeant in the Dallas Police Crime Analysis Unit, says his unit can already predict "within 15 to 20 offenses" how many crimes Dallas police can expect in a given month. Also, by "using a very simple math model," the unit can predict the year's total crime figures--"and we've been doing that for years," Stallo says.

Crime analysis officers can readily call up numbers for specific types of crime based on the race, sex, and age of the victim, as well as the day, time and place where the offense occurred.

"We know certain things will happen based on history," says Stallo, who has met McCain. "If a citizen wants to make a prediction themselves, that's fine. But predictions are just that--they're not perfect."

Six months ago, in fact, Dallas police applied for a grant to test a community-based service that would provide neighborhood crime information. The customized info would not only explain to citizens where crime is occurring in their community, but what action they can take and what police are doing to assist.

"It would be wonderful if we got on the news and said, 'Look--we've had some outbreaks at these schools. It's likely that we're going to have a gang conflict in this area and we're preparing for it.' That's the type of news people are asking for today. Not, 'There's going to be an influx of crime on Saturday, because it's 100 degrees and there's a full moon.'"

But McCain is undaunted by such criticism.
"I have a hell of a lot more experience in doing research than they do," he argues. "I've been doing research for about 38 years, and I don't think Stallo's even that old."

McCain says that his latest research has revealed a correlation between temperature and violence among the sexes of different ethnic groups.

"If you look at aggravated assault among men," he says, "all three ethnic groups correlate. You do it with women, and only African-American women correlate with temperature."

McCain hasn't the slightest explanation of the supposed correlation.
"I don't understand it," he says. "There's no use asking me. One of these days I may know."

In the end, however, he concedes his forecasts may turn out to be more entertaining than useful: "It's possibly no more functional for an individual than the funny papers. But people do read the funny papers and the sports sections.

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