Targeting Crime

If there’s a Target near your town, and you need something, chances are they have it. Clothes, for sure. Diapers or toddler stuff? Toward the back, down the right side. Groceries? All the way left. Movies and video games? There’s a whole section for that. Want a snack? That’s in the front, past the registers.

Finding murderers? Yeah, Target does that too.

The first Target store opened in the U.S. in 1962. Today, there are over 1,700 locations throughout the United States and soon, the company will make its foray into Canada. Target typifies the discount retailer experience: a huge assortment of goods made available at lower than typical retail prices. Along the way, they had problems that many retailers — especially retailers with their scale — are certain to encounter: injuries and crimes. Specifically, Target found itself having to investigate things like slip-and-falls, shoplifting, theft by employees, and the like. To do so, they created a centralized investigation unit in their Minneapolis, Minnesota headquarters. And over time, this unit became more and more advanced. Today, it and a sibling outfit in Las Vegas are, combined, one of the more sophisticated crime labs out there, as described by Forbes. And even that may be an understatement. In 2006, an FBI agent familiar with the labs told the Washington Post that “[o]ne of the nation’s top forensics labs is located at Target’s headquarters building in downtown Minneapolis. They have abilities and technology that far surpasses many law enforcement agencies in the country.”

Thankfully, Target shares their facilities and abilities. About 70% of the labs’ work is for Target. The other 30% of its time is donated by the corporation to law enforcement under the moniker “Target Forensic Services.” Its speciality is in closed-circuit and surveillance video — they have the technology to enhance it (although not to the absurd levels in many crime and sci-fi TV shows) and the people who work there have the experience to know what to look for and where. For example, a few years ago, a CNN correspondent visited the Minneapolis crime lab as they were assisting the local police in investigating a murder. The police provided a tape from a local convenience store, and from that, was able to identify the murderer’s vehicle and developed a decent image of his face. Law enforcement was able to build off of that to identify the man and later get a conviction.

While Target does not advertise the availability of Target Forensic Services, it has become well enough known that demand well outstrips its ability to provide pro bono services. Per Wikipedia, Target now only offers its use to solve violent felonies.

Bonus fact: Target tracks everything customers do and records these activities into a database — so, if you’re a Target customer, chances are you have a Target Guest ID number in their computer systems. Andrew Pole, a statistician for the company, explained the expansiveness of the program to the New York Times: “If you use a credit card or a coupon, or fill out a survey, or mail in a refund, or call the customer help line, or open an e-mail we’ve sent you or visit our Web site, we’ll record it and link it to your Guest ID. We want to know everything we can.” They use that data, in part, to customize coupons which are mailed out to would-be shoppers. But sometimes that backfires. As Forbes noted, the company’s algorithm once determined that a high schooler was a mother-to-be, and, dutifully, sent her a coupons for baby clothes — which her father opened. A few days after receiving an irate phone call from the young woman’s father, a customer service representative called back to apologize again, but the father ended up the one saying sorry: it turns out the algorithm was right. His daughter was pregnant but had not yet told him.

From the ArchivesLunch and a Murder: The story of a group of forensic professionals who gather monthly, at their own expense, to help solve cold cases.

RelatedDetectolab — a crime scene investigation kit. At about $30, it’s probably not as sophisticated as Target’s. Two reviews, 4.5 stars.

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