9/11 led Chicago tech guru to design crime predicting systemBrett Goldstein was promoted to director of the Chicago Police Department's new Predictive Analytics Group
By Frank Main
The Chicago Sun-Times
CHICAGO — Computer guru Brett Goldstein was stuck at Midway Airport on 9/11 when the second plane struck the World Trade Center.
"We were watching CNN when it hit," Goldstein says of that terrible day in 2001. "It planted the seed in my mind."
At the time, he was an executive with OpenTable, a restaurant-reservation tech firm.
"I thought: 'When I am done with OpenTable, maybe it's time to do my duty.' "
That time came for Goldstein in 2006.
He had already passed the Chicago Police Department's entrance exam, struggled through the rigors of the training academy, then hit the streets as a rookie in the crime-ridden Harrison District on the West Side. After working in a beat car, Goldstein was moved to police headquarters, where the computer skills that he'd honed in the business world were quickly put to use.
Things have worked out well for Goldstein. On Aug. 16, the 36-year-old cop was promoted to director of the department's new Predictive Analytics Group, a $150,000-a-year job that puts him in charge of an increasingly important part of police work: forecasting where and when crimes will occur throughout the city.
"There are bad areas," the slim, bespectacled Boston-area native says. "The question is: When is a bad area going to be bad? They're not bad every day."
Goldstein was an early employee of OpenTable, now a major supplier of reservation software for restaurants worldwide that also runs a Web site for making dinner reservations online. In 2001, he was living in Chicago, introducing his company's restaurant-reservation system here through the Lettuce Entertain You chain.
After the World Trade Center attacks, he read a story in the New Yorker that said law enforcement was changing and needed more white-collar professionals — people like him.
After a lot of soul-searching, he decided to become a cop.
At the time, he was earning a master's degree in computer science at the University of Chicago, where he conducted research on using 911 calls to identify crime patterns.
"He was working at a very successful start-up and doing well financially," recalls Leo Irakliotis, who was one of his professors at the U. of C. "When he announced he would take an obscenely huge pay cut to become a police officer, a lot of people questioned his sanity. But I was not surprised at all."
Goldstein helped Irakliotis with a research project involving data-mining of a year's worth of 911 calls.
"I remember the day I told him I have 50,000 call records from the Oak Park Police Department, and his eyes lit up," says Irakliotis, now a dean at Nova Southeastern University near Fort Lauderdale, Fla. "He had some great ideas. It was clear the man had a knack for this stuff."
Goldstein's wife, who works in public health, supported his decision to join the police department. "She said: 'This is the thing to do,' " Goldstein said. "Life was not about going [from] corporate job to job and making more money."
Goldstein recalls doing pushups at the police academy and thinking: "Am I making a critical mistake here?"
He had a lot to learn. His wife bought him a copy of Guns & Ammo magazine — a new area of research for him. "I had no experience in that subject," he said, smiling.
Then, he hit the streets with a field-training officer. Goldstein says a formative experience came during an early foot chase on a freezing day in February. He and his partner stopped a van for a traffic violation, and the driver got out and ran.
"I chased the guy a couple of blocks and took him in," he says. "I thought: 'This is real.'"
Last July, while off-duty, Goldstein captured a murder suspect after seeing the man fire a handgun at a van at 18th and Loomis in the Pilsen neighborhood. Goldstein chased down Marcelino Sauseda, 26, and arrested him in the fatal shooting of a passenger in the van.
During his time on the street, Goldstein marveled at how a field-training officer with 18 years of experience could listen to calls on the police radio, watch where gang members were congregating and accurately predict when and where violence was going to "pop off."
He says he started thinking about how he could design a computer model that could replicate his training officer's intuition.
After Harrison District Cmdr. James Jackson was promoted to first deputy superintendent on Feb. 15, 2008, he brought Goldstein with him to headquarters, where Goldstein kept working on developing a crime-prediction system. A $200,000 federal grant allowed him to work with the Illinois Institute of Technology to design it.
In April, the department launched its predictive analytics system. Now, Goldstein provides top police officials every day with crime forecasts, which are compared with the "human intelligence" gathered by the police on the street.
District commanders and heads of the city's roving anti-violence units use the information to place their officers in predicted crime hot spots. Goldstein says the system can look, for instance, for indicators of robbery with a gun and give police officials maps of where those crimes are likely to happen — along with a written analysis.
Commanders might focus on different types of crimes on different shifts as a result of a forecast, he says, adding: "I am really excited about this. We are seeing patterns."
He declines, though, to describe specific indicators of crime or talk about how accurate the department's computer forecasting system is. The department is still designing a system to evaluate the forecasts, he notes.
New York, Los Angeles and Washington also have crime-forecasting systems, and they are expected to be competing with Chicago to get a federal grant of as much as $3 million to take them to the "next level," Goldstein says.
Goldstein's meteoric rise from cop to commander echoes the rise of Ron Huberman, a onetime tech-savvy cop who became a deputy superintendent, helped design the department's computer system and was promoted to head of the city's 911 system — all by the age of 32 — before going on to be head of the CTA and now the head of Chicago's schools.
"It's quite a Chicago story," Irakliotis says of Goldstein. "He doesn't have any relatives in City Hall. He went through the trenches like any police officer. I'm really proud of him."