This blog entry is offered by Sam Assantha (Saint Anselm College ‘26), an intern at the Center for Ethics in Society.

Weather satellites, radiosondes, and many other instruments are used to aid meteorologists with the complicated task of predicting the weather.  They compare previous weather data to the sky and cloud patterns. Equations are put into computer forecast models to try and get the weather prediction as close as possible. Yet despite the effort and years of data, the prediction is never 100%. Sometimes, it shows a prediction that doesn't happen. Can a similar model be translated to help police prevent crime?

According to the Brennan Center for Justice, predictive policing is a way to forecast criminal activity. Predictive policing uses computerized mathematical models and analytical techniques to compare large sets of police data to help decide where to deploy police or to identify individuals who seem more likely to commit or fall victim to a crime. In a predictive policing model, departments would rely on other data methods such as facial recognition software and social media monitoring systems to help them respond faster or prevent crime from happening.  

Police tape

Predictive policing is new and growing very widely in this era of technology.  The ‘old fashioned’ way of policing, according to, typically included a combination of canvassing, interviews, surveillance, security camera review, painstaking trolling through tips, and other measures. Now that we live in a technologically dominant era, old fashioned policing does also include help from technology but is not reliant on it. 

Before doing research on predictive policing, I had heard about it in high school from peers and police officers themselves. From my memory, I thought the cons heavily outweigh the pros. After doing some research, I can only think of its many flaws. There are many unanswered questions about where they get the information. The United States police does not have a good history when it comes to policing. Embedded in its history is a series of biases to people of different backgrounds and appearances. Predictive policing is supposed to rely on previous crime data, but an article by CBC shows that this data itself is racist. Law enforcement has always targeted Brown and Black communities. 

Predictive policing is “masking” the problems that already existed in policing (CBC). The purpose of predictive policing is to prevent crime and get a jump on it before it happens. However, its foundation already targets minorities and people of color. Neighborhoods of minorities and people of color are the hotspots for crime. This is because of redlining and lack of opportunities. There has always been more police circulating these areas instead of white neighborhoods. This constant surveillance is supported even more by predictive policing because the data gives them a supposed reason to continue. The residents of these neighborhoods will face adversity in trying to be seen as more than criminal, as people who are wrongly and constantly being watched. If people who partake in crime relocated to a neighborhood in a different part of the city, it would create a major blind spot for the police because they are busy circulating one major area. 

Technology is growing way faster than police regulations. The limits the law has placed on policing is not keeping up with the growing access police have to people’s information (CBC). However, because policing is changing so fast they have more access to information that many don't want. Data on personal cell phones, phone calls, social media accounts, etc. could all fall into the open hands of police. Having some private information in the open hands of other people does not sit well with me, even if it's the police; they are still people with my personal information. Violation of trust from the police to the people will cause civil unrest (CBC). The people are supposed to be able to rely on those who protect and serve them. If you're doing everything you're supposed to as a citizen and your privacy is not respected, it could cause less friendly encounters with the police, and people are not going to be willing to participate in police investigation.

Racism is the biggest worry for the effects of predictive policing. We know there is a history of unfriendly encounters between the police and the BIPOC community. There is a crude bias that police today continue to show towards people of color. Many people vote against predictive policing because they believe that replacing a prejudiced human cop or judge with algorithms that merely conceal those same prejudices is not the answer (MIT TECH Reviews). The elephant in the room is that the target location of these algorithms will be in neighborhoods where the majority of people who live there are not white. This will only increase the wrongful incarnation rate and harsh punishment compared to those of lighter complexion, but that's a different story for a different time. Since the majority of officers are of light complexion, diversifying the police force could be a solution. But, officers alone don't do the job. There is a hierarchy that starts from the officer and ends at the judge. Being a person of color in the US has never been easy, and predictive policing enforces and makes a bigger target on your back. 

How does one even prevent crime? To increase police cruisers in hotspots and hope that the people of that area will choose to no longer do criminal activities is ignorant. Unless someone is caught red handed, how does one get prosecuted if a crime has yet to be committed? There are many questions about how this whole system would work, as well as many concerns to this as well. The current system of policing is not ready for such a risky system of policing. Not all officers are bad but the system is yet to prevail against its doubts. I am not an expert and simply expressing opinions but I don't see predictive policing being the right way of policing anytime soon.