Fighting crime with math: Model explains hot spots of illegal activity

March 22, 2010, UC Irvine
UCI criminologist George Tita and colleagues use math models to explain urban crime and predict the efficacy of police intervention. Photo: Steve Zylius

( -- Why are some neighborhoods plagued by break-ins while others nearby are relatively unscathed? Why do drug dealers hang out on that corner? And why is police intervention effective in some cases but not others? For answers, researchers turned to math.

Using a decade of data from the Los Angeles Police Department, UC Irvine criminologist George Tita and colleagues developed a of how urban crime hot spots form and spread. It reveals two distinct types of areas that respond differently to suppression tactics.

Illegal activity follows a discernible pattern, Tita says: “Criminals forage for opportunities to commit crimes, much like bees search for pollen or butterflies for nectar. Foraging patterns are predictable, whether you study human or insect behavior.”

Among other variables, the model factors in the location of crime targets - such as homes, cars and people - and the chance of getting caught, based on police presence, environmental cues and information offenders may have gleaned from previous crimes.

Researchers identified two main kinds of hotspots: supercritical and subcritical. The first are formed when small spikes in such crimes as residential burglary and auto theft build up, creating a local crime wave. In the second, a large spike in crime - often drug-related - draws offenders to a central site.

Law enforcement efforts in the two types of hotspots have very different outcomes, the study found. “Stepped-up policing will stop crime in a subcritical area, but police involvement in a supercritical area will simply shift crime to surrounding neighborhoods,” says Tita, associate professor of , law & society.

Tita worked with UCLA associate professor of anthropology Jeffrey Brantingham along with Andrea Bertozzi and Martin Short of UCLA’s mathematics department on the study, which was supported by the National Science Foundation.

The findings, published recently in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, could help law enforcement agencies adopt more effective crime prevention strategies and tailor their approach to concentrated criminal activity.

The team, now investigating whether the model can be applied to crime worldwide, has received funding from the Office of Naval Research to see if it can shed light on insurgent groups in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Such collaboration among criminologists, anthropologists and mathematicians may be key to preventing illegal behavior, Tita says.

is a function of a motivated offender, a suitable victim and the absence of governance,” he says. “Criminals follow patterns just like everyone else in their daily lives.”

Explore further: Can math and science help solve crimes?

More information: … 64-b2e6-70e5102a6f2c

Related Stories

Can math and science help solve crimes?

February 22, 2010

( -- UCLA scientists working with Los Angeles police are using sophisticated mathematics to identify and analyze urban crime patterns.

Community gardens don't impact crime rate

September 8, 2009

Urban residents across the United States have dug in to create green spaces in their neighborhoods, transforming vacant lots into colorful and crowd-pleasing community gardens. According to the American Community Gardening ...

Parolee releases spike violent crime, study suggests

September 1, 2009

( -- California lawmakers may want to rethink a cost-cutting proposal to release at least 27,000 inmates from state prison in light of a new study linking parolees to increases in violent crime.

Recommended for you

Unprecedented study of Picasso's bronzes uncovers new details

February 17, 2018

Musee national Picasso-Paris and the Northwestern University/Art Institute of Chicago Center for Scientific Studies in the Arts (NU-ACCESS) have completed the first major material survey and study of the Musee national Picasso-Paris' ...

Humans will actually react pretty well to news of alien life

February 16, 2018

As humans reach out technologically to see if there are other life forms in the universe, one important question needs to be answered: When we make contact, how are we going to handle it? Will we feel threatened and react ...

Using Twitter to discover how language changes

February 16, 2018

Scientists at Royal Holloway, University of London, have studied more than 200 million Twitter messages to try and unravel the mystery of how language evolves and spreads.


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

not rated yet Mar 23, 2010
Just a minor quibble, but whenever I hear about mathematics even when it has been applied to a non-mathematical problem I'm instantly interested, but invariably, there is no mathematics, just vague allusions to the fact that mathematics was used! I guess it's too much to hope that actual mathematics be included, and is it unrealistic to expect that it would? But for those of us who are mathematically literate just a smidgen of mathematics would be very much appreciated.
Mar 23, 2010
This comment has been removed by a moderator.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.