California State University, Long Beach
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Malm Traces Crime Right to Its Door

Alli Malm

Spiderman may use his web to fight crime and Batman his utility belt, but Criminal Justice’s Aili Malm wields the power of the map.

Malm, a Santa Monica resident who joined the university in 2006, is interested in mapping criminal networks, tracking organized crime to its door.

“The underpinnings of this method come from a technique called geographical profiling,” explained Malm, who came to CSULB from Vancouver’s Simon Fraser University. “It is possible to extrapolate the location of criminal offenders by the location of their victims.”

Her primary interest is applying these techniques to organized crime. “I look at where organized crime groups are located and I study how these groups are linked to one another,” she explained. “I can chart their cell phone use or e-mail communication or with whom they co-offend. Based on these connections, I try to isolate the important players. Then I take the social and make it spatial. I look at individuals important to the criminal network and map where they live and where they commit their crimes.”

Malm was curious at first to discover if criminal kingpins lived in the middle of their territory or on the edge.

"My research has shown over and over again that the important people in criminal networks tend to locate themselves on the periphery of where the crimes occur,” she said. “These are not the day-to-day drug runners or the day-to-day hitmen. The most important figures don’t want to be in the middle of things, but they don’t want to be too far away, either. It is the foot soldier who will be in the in the core spatially, but they won’t be in the core socially. By the same token, the people at the core socially will be at the periphery spatially.”

Her interest in crime mapping began with a Renaissance mixture of scholarly interests including math, computers and psychology, “an odd mix academically,” she acknowledged. She began work with crime mapping pioneers Patricia and Paul Branningham of Simon Fraser University, founders of environmental criminology or looking at crime from a spatial perspective.

“Crime mapping traces its roots back to 19th century Europe and its interest in epidemiology. By tracing the spread of disease, they found a way to chart crime. Now, thanks to research by scholars like the Branninghams, we can spot crime attractors such as bus stops or crime generators such as shopping centers,” Malm said.

It was while at Simon Fraser that Malm began working with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP).

“The RCMP was interested in organized crime and social network analysis proved valuable,” she said. Her interest led her to discover parallels between tracking Canadian criminals and mapping Southern California gangs. She has worked with researchers at UC Irvine and UCLA.

Social network analysis is especially useful in collecting intelligence. “Say the LAPD has a certain amount of resources to track a gang of 60 members,” she said. “I can use network analysis to pick the 10 most promising members to track and use spatial analysis to determine where they concentrate in neighborhoods. Both of these techniques allow police to focus their limited resources.”

She received her bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate degrees at Simon Fraser University, the latter in 2006. The topic of her dissertation was marijuana growing operations which she examined through its social networks and spatial aspects.

Being a crime cartographer has changed Malm on many levels.

“The micro changes begin when I look for an apartment to rent,” she said. “I look at its street location with special care. Because I’ve done spatial research, I know what kind of home is most likely to be burglarized. On a meso-level, I use my research to discover if the neighborhood has criminal hot spots. Have there been burglaries in that neighborhood in the last six months? On the macro-level, I’m always thinking in terms of who is linked to whom.”