“Predictive Policing” – Geographical Profiling?


They’re calling it Predictive Policing, but is it really just another form of statistical profiling? Police in New York and Los Angeles are using software called (predictably) “PredPol” as part of their daily briefing to help locate crime “hot spots” for the day. The software creates a map of the city being watched, marking it up with small red 500-by-500 feet squares where crimes are “likely” to happen. The software claims to use more than just a database of past crimes and adds what it calls “sociological information” to help forecast likely spots where cars may be stolen, houses burglarized or people mugged. The company does not elaborate on what kind of “sociological information” is worked into the algorithms, but the term “sociological” implies that assumptions about the behaviors of people are being woven into the mix at some point.

At first blush, this sounds like a reasonable way to gain insights from past data about where crimes are “likely” to happen. And to the extent that police presence deters crime, this could have beneficial effects. But it’s also true that arrests can only occur where police are present, which suggests that any area where police are concentrated is going to have more arrest activity. Over time, will this become a self-fulfilling prophecy as police make more and more arrests in the areas that have been targeted based on “sociological information”, which will in turn give more statistical weight to these areas as crime “hot spots”?

When applying for search warrants (which must be based on “probable cause”), police often cite as a basis that the area to be searched is in a “high crime area”. Don’t be surprised to see search warrants start reciting that the area to be searched was targeted by PredPol as an area where crimes are “likely” to occur. When that happens, we will be one step closer to diluting the notion of a “detached magistrate” and relying on computers to make the independent judgments that need to be made in these highly subjective calls.

And just wait till real estate agents start using this data to steer people away from crime “hot spots”. Think about that next time you consider reporting a crime to police.

For more, see this story.