Murder In Los Angeles: Big Data And The Decline Of Homicide
It was late October and Rene Balbuena sat in his silver SUV, idling on 92nd Street and Gramercy Place in South Los Angeles.
Balbuena had driven to the residential neighborhood on a Saturday evening with his 15-year-old son to buy a cellphone, lured by a false Craigslist ad. But when he approached the listed address, someone answered the door and told him to go away.
The 41-year-old South Gate man then returned to his vehicle, where two men approached him and demanded money. When Balbuena stepped out of his SUV, he was shot three times in the chest in front of his son. Police found Balbuena face down on the pavement.
Balbuena was pronounced dead at California Hospital.
The Oct. 19 killing jolted the Los Angeles Police Department, which was in the midst of celebrating a days-long, homicide-free streak. Reports that the City of Angels had gone 10 days without a murder ended up being incorrect; the agency reported one on Oct. 13 (although the initial investigation may not have been labeled as such). But that didn't matter. Rene Balbuena was dead; there would be no milestone celebration.
Hidden in the footnotes of Balbuena's death was some good news for the LAPD. In Los Angeles, murder might be becoming an anomaly. Data tells the same story.
The fact is that homicide cases investigated by the LAPD, an agency that commands 21 separate divisions protecting 3.2 million people over 498 square miles, have dropped 9 percent since last year. The department is on the verge of breaking records. And the agency had an actual murder-free streak over a nine-day period in 2013, from October 22 to November 1 – a feat accomplished only one other time in the past decade.
No one seemed to notice, or report it.
So why in a city that used to average one murder per day, are people no longer killing one another with such frequency?
During the initial none-streak, the LAPD credited “technologies” – a blanket attribution that covers pretty much anything computerized by the department.
Lt. Ellis Imaizumi of Newtown Division placed heavy emphasis on predictive analytics in particular, telling KNBC before Balbuena’s death that the LAPD “is using predictive policing to inform their patrols.”
“Somebody will say, ‘Is this kind of a guessing game?’ It could be; it could be looked at that. But this is like a probability map, so to speak,” Imaizumi said during the so-called streak.
But this fails to recognize what the agency has truly accomplished, or what the group largely responsible for distributing automated products to officers, the Real-Time Analysis and Critical Response (RACR) Divison, is actually capable of.
The history of RACR (pronounced “racer”) traces back to 2002, when Los Angeles’ murder rate rose to 17.1 and the city recorded 654 homicides. In contrast, the LAPD reported 298 homicides all of last year.
City residents also voted for Proposition Q in 2002, which provided $600 million in public funds to establish nine new law enforcement facilities and pay for the renovations of 11 outdated police stations. The measure led to the construction of RACR’s $107 million facility, often described as some kind of Orwellian “Big Brother” law enforcement watchtower.
Few media outlets have been allowed inside RACR's inner sanctum – a state-of-the-art emergency operations center the press has dubbed LAPD’s “war room.” The veil of secrecy conjures up images of SkyNet and fuels talks of conspiracy on backwater Internet channels.
Located in downtown L.A.'s backyard, RACR is not the all-seeing eye many fear, nor a panacea for crime. It handles a variety of responsibilities, including the less-than-glamorous management of the agency’s CompStat operations – comparative statistics designed to promote department efficiency and bore criminals to death.
The division’s commanding officer, Capt. John Romero, is a 24-year LAPD veteran. The restrained and dry New Mexico native already knows the reputation his division has in the press: innacurate media tales of drones flying over the skies of Los Angeles spying on citizens (“There are no drones,” says Romero) and supercomputers that can accurately predict when you will finally murder that guy that cuts in front of you at Starbucks (“This is not Minority Report,” the captain dryly replies).
Indeed, there are no embryonic vats full of precogs sit in the back of the division’s steel, industrial exterior. Sentient machines do not wander the sterile hallways, nor oversee the highly fortified building designed to withstand an earthquake up to a magnitude of 8.
The RACR facility is certainly impressive notwithstanding.
The emergency operations center, with its banks of flat-panel computer screens and shotgun-adorned walls, showcases an impressive array of high-tech law enforcement gear. An expansive video wall – capable of displaying everything from local television feeds to an early-warning system for earthquakes – stands front-and-center.
From this fortress of silicon, Romero can pull up over 1,000 citywide cameras, access real-time video feeds from the field and quickly mobilize emergency personnel at the agency’s beck and call. When the LAX shooting occurred last month, the underground safe room was at full operational readiness and gave law enforcement an advantageous position to respond.
While the “war room” is the public face of RACR, the division is also in the business of Big Data. Romero’s command is responsible for a number of products that have changed how the LAPD combats crime – something the captain refers to as “proactive law enforcement.”
“It’s real and it works,” Romero says.
One of those products is a predictive policing platform designed by a local startup called PredPol. Co-founded by UCLA professor Jeff Brantingham, PredPol uses algorithms to denote geographic areas where crime is likely to occur based on seven to 10 years worth of data.
When PredPol launched in 2011, it was met with some skepticism.
“Large organizations are inherently change resistant,” remarked Romero. But the LAPD credited PredPol for a 12 percent reduction in crime within the first year of its pilot program.
PredPol is integrated into all 21 divisions within the LAPD, although its use varies by region. Commanding officers are empowered to decide how prominent PredPol is when managing patrol units, so usage of PredPol fluctuates dependinging on who is charge. There is difficulty in convincing some established officers that they need a computer to spit out a 500-by-500 foot square box designating likely areas of crime on a map.
“That’s something a human analyst can also do,” says Romero.
But Romero argues that PredPol’s predictions are more accurate by “several percentage points” and allows commanding officers to redirect human resources to fight crime instead of predict it.
For now, PredPol is only used to predict burglaries, auto theft and vehicular burglaries. Only a few pilot programs have used PredPol for violent crimes and evidence has not been made available to the public. Romero would like to see PredPol expanded to include “shots fired,” which he sees as likely in the near future.
PredPol has long been the media darling of predictive analytics, but the division has other Big Data tools in its arsenal.
Using software solutions from Palantir, the agency combs through nine to 10 databases (including federal and state data sets) with just a click of a button. Some of it the data is highly controversial; the L.A. Weekly has already written at length about the department’s license plate recognition systems. Once entered, the system can automatically track a vehicle throughout the city with uncanny speed.
Palantir, of all the products curated by RACR, is the most potentially invasive.
In an impact study released by the firm, Palantir boasts that it gives the LAPD a “full suite of analytical capabilities” beyond just geospatial search, including “trend analysis, link charts, timelines and histograms.”
Besides parsing enormous amounts of data in a short amount of time, the agency also relies on CrimeView Dashboard software from the Omega Group. The dashboard visualizes all sorts of crime data – including homicides – to help commanding officers plot out missions more efficiently.
In a post-Snowden era, it’s easy to find this all a bit troubling.
None of these tools work entirely on autopilot. Everything still relies on human touch to follow computer-generated recommendations, make executive decisions or even click a button.
“The gadgetry does not make RACR, it’s the people,” adds Romero.
But how responsible these analytical tools are in reducing murder is uncertain. The numbers are on the side of law enforcement officials; crime across the board has been steadily decreasing for over a decade. However, correlation does not necessarily imply causation.
Historical murder trends in Los Angeles reveal an odd portrait and it is unclear how much impact the LAPD has had on the statistics.
In 1992, the homicide rate in Los Angeles reached record levels. A total of 1,092 murder victims were recorded by the LAPD alone. But then something incredible happened. Rival Latino and black gangs all sent out decrees telling their respective organizations to stop drive-by shootings.
Homicide numbers plummeted nearly overnight.
Peace was relatively short-lived, as numbers began to inch back up around the turn of the century. The LAPD, still reeling from the Rampart scandal, was ill-prepared to handle the resurgence of violence. The agency needed a makeover.
When mythological crime fighter and former police chief Bill Bratton brought his Moneyball-like perspective on law enforcement to the LAPD in 2002, he changed the culture of the agency.
Community outreach was a pillar of Bratton’s term as police chief and his tenure marked a stunning reversal in public sentiment against the agency. In the 10 years since Bratton righted the ship, crime in Los Angeles has steadily dropped.
The community has changed too.
Operation Ceasefire, which launched in 2001, placed a burden of “collective accountability” on gang members and their families. Los Angeles' police officers began to look at turf wars through the lens of respect rather than solely through the narcotics trade.
Gang crime in areas targeted by the operation – namely Boyle Heights and Hollenbeck – has significantly decreased.
A fatigue of death also may have settled in some of the more gang-entrenched territories. L.A. Weekly freelancer Michael Krikorian’s riveting story of the funeral for a late South Los Angeles rapper projects an image of Watts that is simply tired of retaliatory murder; a community exhausted with senseless death.
But in the same story, Krikorian also highlights how L.A.'s police department has rehabilitated its public image.
So is it the advent of automated law enforcement that has led to the downfall of murder? Better community relations? Self-policing?
Nobody really knows, but that’s not stopping the LAPD from making the time between each homicide a little bit longer. With every product RACR puts out, the hope is that the gap between tragedies like Rene Balbuena's senseless death grows a little wider.
By the time Romero sat down for an interview, the agency was in the midst of yet another murder-free streak. Asked if the LAPD was gun shy about publicizing the statistics after the much-ballyhooed streak ended so abruptly, Romero gave a telling response:
“You don’t tell the pitcher he’s throwing a no-hitter in the bottom of the seventh.”
Perhaps jinxed, the LAPD’s murder-free streak was snapped that very night. One week without a homicide halted by a senseless tragedy. The LAPD is aware that it can’t stop all crime, despite its best efforts. It is easy for the media to become jaded.
“Homicides do happen,” LAPD spokesman Cleon Joseph was forced to remind KNBC after Balbuena’s death.
Time to start a new streak.