The Science of Sherlock
How modern-day crime solvers are putting technology to the task
- By David Petrook
- Sep 28, 2021
Sherlock Holmes is known the world over for his amazing use of, induction, deduction, forensic science, elementary observation, and logic to successfully investigate and crack crime cases. Although a fictional character born out of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s imagination, Holmes has inspired generations of intellectuals to think analytically and scientifically, and his crime-solving methods adopted by police forces around the world, and with good reason.
The many complexities of modern-day criminal investigations, mounting case volumes, and vast troves of data have given rise to the next generation of crime analysts. With the proper tools, modern-day Baker Street detectives are making great strides in both preventing crimes and solving more cases and doing it all much more quickly.
The huge amounts of data available from video surveillance, body-worn devices, traffic cameras and other IoT devices means there is more real time and historical evidence for police to work with than ever before. Despite this, clearance rates, or the percentage of crimes that are resolved (but don’t necessarily result in a conviction) haven’t changed.
In fact, over the last few decades, where focus has turned to prevention, clearance rates for homicide cases in the United States have remained fairly constant at about 64%. Even for fictional hero-detective Sherlock Holmes, it would be difficult to process the vast amounts of information to understand which pieces really matter. Tried-and-true policing techniques supported by modern-day technologies have shown dramatic improvements in cities around the world.
Chicago for instance, has made enormous strides using the latest technology to help improve safety and responsiveness in some of the cities’ most at risk neighborhood, decreasing violent crime by 24% and shootings by 70%. In this article, we go behind the scenes to see how the modern-day Sherlock Holmes is using technology to help solve cases, catch criminals and enhance the safety of our streets.
Crime analysts are proving to be an indispensable asset in improving and accelerating police work and are earning their place as valued consultants to many city departments large and small. The role of crime analysts is to identify trends and make recommendations based on their observations. Balancing more reactive, day-to-day crime solving with analysis, and re-opening old, cold cases to apply new data analysis techniques, they have changed the face of criminal investigation.
While they are surely employing Sherlock-like techniques, the volume of qualitative and quantitative data available to analysts, combined with modern technology to speed up analysis, changes the game. It not only allows them to help solve cases faster and catch criminals more quickly, but also apply modelling to identify patterns and abnormalities to support pro-active policing activities. Using modern technology tools, crime analysts can now also identify and analyze both short-term and long-term trends and patterns to help police and others target problems and create long-term solutions, and ultimately keep our communities and cities safer.
Challenges Crime Analysts Face
Traditional crime analysts are tasked with several functions. The first is detective work to find possible links in a crime. Based on any leads they have, they try to pinpoint any suspects’ device readouts, analyze network connections and multiple databases to follow paths and look for any relevant clues that may shed more light on the case. If, for instance, a blue SUV with local plates is involved in a crime, and they know that other arrests were made recently involving a similar car, they can dig deeper to see what links, if any, there may be between them.
Secondly, software and data assisted crime analysts search for significant patterns in crimes in order to crack cases. If law enforcement, for example, is looking to home in on a drug network, crime analysts work to piece together who the suppliers are, who the buyers are, who the movers are, etc. Using their arrest and management systems records and data, they can better figure out how a criminal organization functions, and how to put in place strategies to move the case forward. Proof that modern technology is a game changer; one of the key contributors to improved clearance rates has been the application of new technologies and techniques to old, cold cases.
While the techniques for criminal investigations (with the exception of forensics) have not really changed that much, the ability to establish links between four or five pieces of data that previously would have taken days or weeks to find, can now be done in minutes or a few hours. This means that cases that would have previously sat on the shelf are more likely to be investigated and solved quickly.
Crime analysts’ third function is to look for generic or statistical trends, such as a rise in homicides or assaults in a specific area. This helps them create maps and charts for the police department’s executive team to get a clearer picture of what is happening in their precinct. Oftentimes, someone had to collect all the data and input the information into an Excel spreadsheet in order to see if the homicide and assault percentage were up or down over previous periods. With modern solutions, algorithms are now used to highlight statistically significant changes in the data that highlights changes in crime patterns.
Putting Technology to Task
Coordinating and collaborating all the data collected from myriad sources such as video surveillance footage, Automatic License Plate Recognition (ALPR), and information provided by private citizens or businesses is a huge undertaking. Gathering all that data from varying sources and interpreting it to make better, quicker, efficient decisions can be made.
Many crime analysts are turning to innovative technology solutions, such as Genetec Citigraf™. This decision support system empowers public safety departments to build a deeper, data-driven understanding of what is happening in their city. Citigraf collects and manages information provided by integrated CAD (Computer Aided Dispatch) systems, CCTV footage, ALPR data, RMS (Record Management Systems) and more in a single pane of glass, to immediately identify and display the exact location of an event using icons on a map from a built-in geographical information system (GIS). Thanks to a collaborative integration with gunshot detection technology. When a gunshot has been detected, response teams are notified with a map located gun icon coupled with nearby cameras. With this combined information, Rapid, actionable alerts to help law enforcement quickly intervene and take control of dangerous situations, stop crimes, and save lives.
Law enforcement has a new way of measuring, reporting, and determining the impact of new initiatives and interventions to increase overall public safety. Analytics dashboards, heat maps, and data analysis provide valuable insights into how crime and events move and change throughout a given area, over time. The collective, data-driven analytics give police departments forward looking; predictive indicators of potential issues within the city’s coming operations cycle, helping law enforcement define and modify patrol beats and staffing requirements.
Trusted technology solutions can continually analyze information from thousands of sensors and data points, assisting frontline public safety teams by bringing to light relevant events and information. This allows responders to prepare for what they can expect before arriving on site and allows individuals and agencies to see what is happening across their jurisdictions.
The International Association of Crime Analysts reports that technology has proven instrumental in solving cases, developing effective strategies to prevent future crimes, educating the public, and allocating resources and prioritize patrol investigations. The result is often a reduction in crime rates and the development of proactive public safety strategies.
Strategic Decision Support Centers (SDSCs) Facilitate the Use of More Sophisticated Technology
We all need workspaces with easy access to the right tools to help us get the job done. While Sherlock Holmes carried out his own practice at his Baker Street home, the new modern crime lab typically features known as Strategic Decision Support Centers (SDSCs). These multi-screen equipped crime-fighting nerve centers facilitate decision making through increased data, intelligence, clearer context, and correlation for better understanding. They use dedicated hardware and software solutions and help local police departments develop proactive investigative and public safety strategies. They function to give crime analysts and police departments more comprehensive local intelligence and deeper insight so that they can use r personnel and resources more effectively while improving officer safety.
While technology is proving a powerful tool in crime solving, it is and will always be the human element that ultimately cracks criminal cases. Just as Sherlock Holmes relied on his own powers of observation, induction, deduction, logic and reasoning, so too do modern-day crime solvers trust their wits to uncover clues and find the truth. Leveraging technology to help in the process is simply a smart choice and, well, elementary, my dear Watson.
This article originally appeared in the September / October 2021 issue of Security Today.