09/16/2010 09:03 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Harnessing Data to Fight Crime

I was watching the John Dillinger gangster movie, Public Enemies, on cable the other night. Time and again, Dillinger and his gang rob some Depression-era bank and then disappear into the countryside in a fast car, eluding police with ease.

Dillinger, no dummy, capitalized on the fact that most police departments of the day didn't equip their patrol vehicles with radios. In fact, he gave a wide berth to those advanced cities that had radio cars.

The savvy gangster was adept at exploiting gaps in the law enforcement network -- which is what criminals have been doing forever.

And they're still doing it today. The drop in the overall crime rate in recent years attests to the professionalism and competence of 21st century police departments. But many of these departments, particularly the smaller ones, lack modern support mechanisms that can give officers a deep and comprehensive picture of criminal activity in their communities.

Crime in the United States is still a terrible burden on society. According to FBI statistics, in 2009 there were 1.3 million violent crimes in the U.S., 9.3 million property crimes and 6.3 million larceny/thefts.

Nevertheless, any child accustomed to surfing the Web would be dumbfounded at the lack of modern tools available to many detectives investigating serious crimes.

In many departments, vital information is spread among several databases, making it extremely difficult to piece together facts quickly. And sometimes a database is little more than a box stuffed with paper files under a desk in the squad room.

This cumbersome arrangement can prevent important information from getting to detectives in the crucial hours immediately following a crime. Police are at an even greater disadvantage in battling Internet crime, with criminals constantly devising ever more devious tactics.

Fortunately, there is an equalizer. Police can now rely on computer and communications systems that provide immediate access to everything that is known about a particular criminal -- arrests, convictions, hangouts, associates and distinguishing features like scars and tattoos.

In addition, powerful analytics software can process vast amounts of crime data. For example, New York City's Real Time Crime Center can comb through millions of pieces of information -- criminal complaints, arrests, 911 calls and criminal records -- to quickly identify suspects, detect crime patterns and transmit information to police officers on the street via handheld devices. Crime has dropped 27 percent since 2001, and New York is now one of the safest large cities in the U.S.

Making a dangerous place safer is one of the best ways to enable business investment and elevate the quality of life. A community freed from the shackles of crime blossoms in wonderful and unexpected ways. Those hideous security gates disappear, new stores open up, citizens come out from behind locked doors and get involved in the life of the neighborhood.

Dillinger isn't around anymore, of course, but criminals haven't stopped probing the seams of society, looking for the weak spots. We must give the police every advantage as they work to protect us.