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Police think ‘Big’ in fight against petty crime
By Ke Jiayun

LOCAL police are turning to information technology to help them combat a rising tide of petty theft in the city.

At the heart of the latest crime-fighting campaign is the “Big Data” system set up by the Shanghai Public Security Bureau. Providing officers with up-to-date information about all manner of felonious activity — including the personal details of known offenders, a geographical breakdown of the city’s crime hot spots and a log of stolen goods — the database has become an essential tool in keeping villains off the city’s streets.

In the year through March 20, Shanghai police handled 2,440 pickpocketing and purse-snatching cases, more than double the amount in the first three months of 2013. The number of people detained in the period rose more than 17 percent to 1,086, many of whom were members of the more than 100 crime gangs cracked in the quarter.

A police officer told Shanghai Daily that while crime numbers had risen, the increase was mostly due to the fact that police now have better access to information and are investigating more cases.

The Big Data system has helped to crack dozens of petty theft cases in recent months, an area that has been of key interest to the city’s police chiefs. Several successes were reported at a press conference last week.

In one case, four pregnant women and a child, who operated as a team, were apprehended on February 26 at a market in Fengxian District.

Police from Jiading District had been alerted to the group’s activities on January 12 after a merchant at another market reported the theft of more than 18,000 yuan (US$2,900) and a cellphone. She said she recalled four women and a minor hanging around her stall and talking to her a lot shortly before the phone and cash went missing.

Following a monthlong investigation, police closed in on the group at a vegetable market in Fengxian. Before making the arrests, officers saw the women trying to distract a stall holder, while a child attempted to steal money from the victim’s purse.

Once in custody, the gang confessed to eight similar thefts involving goods worth more than 100,000 yuan.

In another case, a gang of three pickpockets that targeted people queuing for buses during busy rush hour periods was detained by police in Minhang District. Amid the hustle and bustle of people alighting to and from crowded buses, the light-fingered thieves sought to lift cellphones and wallets from the pockets and bags of their victims.

Thanks to information from the Big Data system, police were able to deduce where the gang was likely to strike next and prepared to make their move.

The three were arrested on February 20 and later confessed to committing an average of one crime every two days. They said they had stolen items worth a combined 30,000 yuan.

Far better equipped

By pooling intelligence gathered across the city via the Big Data system, police officers said they are now far better equipped to tackle the 150 to 200 pickpocketing and purse-snatching cases that happen every day.

Information is also used to identify crime hot spots, police said. Based on system data, officers made a concerted effort to combat crime at the popular wholesale clothes market on Qipu Road, often referred to as “Cheap Road,” in Hongkou District. Since the start of the year, 45 people have been detained in relation to 39 pickpocketing and purse-snatching cases, a rise of 254 percent from the same period of 2013.

The crackdown also led to police smashing five crime gangs.

To get an insight into the work of police in fighting this type of crime, Shanghai Daily was invited to take part in a patrol by plainclothes officers.

“We’re always on the lookout for people behaving in a suspicious manner,” officer Gu Junjie said.

“While regular pedestrians tend to look around as they’re walking and shopping, criminals focus on people’s bags and pockets,” he said.

“They mostly operate in busy places like bus stations, markets and hospitals, where there are crowds of people and they can easily mingle in.

“They are opportunists,” he said. “They look for easy targets and prey on them. But if they think they’ve been spotted they quickly move on.”

Gu didn’t make any arrests while out with Shanghai Daily, but he said he wasn’t surprised.

“Even when we’re undercover, it’s not easy,” he said. “A lot of the pickpockets are very experienced and we have to be very careful to avoid detection. Sometimes we operate in teams, with one man and one woman, so we look like ordinary couples out shopping,” he said.

Also, when a suspect is spotted, officers have to move quickly to ensure an arrest, Gu said.

“We can only charge someone if they’re found in possession of a stolen item or we have strong evidence, like a surveillance tape, of them in the act,” he said.

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