Real Future

Predictive Policing: the future of crime-fighting, or the future of racial profiling?

This is Episode 12 of Real Future, Fusion’s documentary series about technology and society. More episodes available at realfuture.tv.

There’s a new kind of software that claims to help law enforcement agencies reduce crime, by using algorithms to predict where crimes will happen and directing more officers to those areas. It’s called “predictive policing,” and it’s already being used by dozens of police departments all over the country, including the Los Angeles, Chicago, and Atlanta Police Departments.

Aside from the obvious “Minority Report” pre-crime allusions, there has been a tremendous amount of speculation about what the future of predictive policing might hold. Could people be locked up just because a computer model says that they are likely to commit a crime? Could all crime end altogether, because an artificial intelligence gets so good at predicting when crimes will occur?

Some skeptics doubt that predictive policing software actually works as advertised. After all, most crimes occur only in semi-regular patterns, while big, low-frequency crimes like terrorist attacks aren’t typically governed by patterns at all, making them much harder for an algorithm to predict.

There is also the question of what happens to communities of color under a predictive policing regime. Brown and black people are already the disproportionate targets of police action, and with predictive policing software, some worry that police could feel even more empowered to spend time looking for crime in neighborhoods populated by minorities.

Although big companies like IBM also make predictive policing tools, one of the most widely deployed products comes from a small Santa Cruz, California firm called PredPol.

The way PredPol works is actually quite simple. It takes in past crime data—only when it happened and what type of crime—and spits out predictions about where future crimes are more likely to occur. It turns those predictions into 500 foot by 500 foot red boxes on a Google map, indicating areas that police officers should patrol when they’re not actively responding to a call. The idea is that if officers focus their attention on an area that’s slightly more likely to see a crime committed than other places, they will reduce the amount of crime in that location.

PredPol boxes on a screen in Santa Cruz, California

Police chiefs who have tried PredPol and similar systems swear that it work. For example, the Norcross (GA) Police Department claims it saw a 15-30% reduction in burglaries and robberies after deploying the software.

But I wanted to ask tougher questions about predictive policing—not just whether it helps reduce crime, but how it helps reduce crime, and whether the system could serve as an algorithmic justification for old-school racial profiling by placing more police in minority-populated neighborhoods.

So I went to Santa Cruz, California, where the local police department is using PredPol to patrol the city. I went on a ride-along with Deputy Police Chief Steve Clark, and spoke to local activists who fear that predictive policing software could invite harm, rather than preventing it.

Here’s the video of my trip to see the real effects of predictive policing:

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