Good day for a robbery
In a tiny office at the end of a sterile, white corridor that stretches across the fifth floor of the University of Texas at Arlington's Life Sciences Building sits a white-bearded professor who says he has developed the decisive weapon in the war on crime.
Using arcane secret formulas and mountains of statistical information, Dr. Garvin McCain, professor emeritus of psychology at UTA, predicts crime like the weatherman forecasts rain.
And while the weatherman may concede a margin of error, McCain is not afraid to tell anyone that his predictions--backed, he says, by 38 years of research experience--are 88.7 percent accurate.
Never mind that Dallas police say McCain's forecasts are meaningless. The 73-year-old professor insists that his figures are the crime-fighting breakthrough citizens and police are looking for.
Sure, it seems kind of strange to boil down an incredibly complex phenomenon--crime--into a simple daily forecast. But McCain's attitude is summed up in a Peanuts cartoon posted on his office bulletin board. The card shows Linus cuddling his security blanket, and reads: "No problem is so big or so complicated that it can't be run away from."
If people harken to his daily crime forecast, McCain says, one thing they can start dodging is crime.
On Friday, May 5, as meteorologists all across Dallas forecasted cloudy skies with a 60 percent chance of thunderstorms and highs in the 70s, Dr. McCain predicted 22 robberies, 35 aggravated assaults, 125 thefts, and a high of 55 burglaries.
At the end of the day, Dallas police recorded 18 robberies, 21 aggravated assaults, 156 thefts, and 38 burglaries--showing McCain way off for assaults and burglaries that particular day.
Rapes and murders, incidentally, do not register in McCain's crime forecast. "I'm happy to say there are not enough of them reported to make a very decent prediction from," he explains.
McCain says his years as a researcher have enabled him to glean certain insights into crime that figure into his forecasts, which he began issuing to media outlets in May of this year.
The professor has observed, for example, that the greatest number of violent crimes occurs on Saturday, and the greatest number of non-violent crimes occurs on Friday. He's also noticed that the fewest non-violent crimes, such as theft and burglary, occur on Sunday--perhaps "because more people are at home, so you don't go burglarizing when someone is there."
Whether these are words of wisdom or just common sense, McCain hopes to sell them to the news media. So far, he hasn't had any clients for his crime forecasts and hasn't decided what he would charge for his reports if he did. "I'm not into the business aspect of this thing," he says.
A few months ago, McCain established a private business, McCain Inc.--which seeks to become the crime weathervane for cities all over the country. To announce McCain Inc.'s arrival in Dallas, his test city, the professor faxed the first batch of his daily crime forecasts to several media outlets, including the Dallas Observer.
"You don't have a local television outlet that doesn't have a weather forecaster," McCain says. "I'm planning on doing the exact same kind of thing, except it will cost [TV stations] a lot less."
McCain's plans for his crime forecast service go far beyond local television, however. He envisions a day when police officers and academies will use his predictions to deploy officers in crime-prone areas, and train rookies on "what's going down on the street."
McCain can't say how his forecasts will aid the average citizen, except that "if people are conscious about what's going on I think we have a leg up."
Indeed, these words come from a man who knows the importance of accurate prediction. McCain was an Army pilot in World War II, and recalls a day when he soared off into the sky from a base in India after receiving a meteorologist's forecast of clear skies. Little did he know that a monsoon was in store for him.
McCain ran into the ferocious winds over India. "The radios just went crazy--the dials couldn't do a thing," he recalls.
McCain, who has never trusted a meteorological report since, says his crime crystal ball--based on a series of mathematical computations that took him four years to develop--gives a sharper picture.
"I'm the only one who knows what goes into it, I'm the only one who came up with it," he says. "I'm to blame."
McCain won't give away his formula, but does say it's based on factors such as the occurrence rate for each type of crime, and the time of the day and week. The time factors are most important, he says, because they "account for 75 percent of the variance" in crime figures. All of McCain's numbers are based on historical data gathered from police reports.
McCain ventured into crime prediction after years of conducting research on animal behavior, and later, the effects of prison crowding on inmate behavior. One time while finishing a book, he recalls experiencing a "real thirst for some data. I needed a data fix in the worst way." It was then that a colleague told him about some bizarre research that sought to prove a direct correlation between murder and temperature--the theory being that an increase in Fahrenheit contributes to a higher murder rate.
"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.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Observer's biggest stories.