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Predictive policing in the U.S. gets personal

Robert L. Mitchell | Oct. 25, 2013
Data mining can predict who will reoffend, not just where and when the crimes will occur.

In Los Angeles the program met initial resistance due to such fears. "There were some questions about whether we were violating civil rights by doing this," says Malinowski. "But we're not factoring in arrests, and there is no information about individuals. It's about crimes and the times and places they occurred."

Andrew G. Ferguson, associate professor of law at the University of the District of Columbia, has studied and published a paper on predictive policing. He says predictive policing efforts in Los Angeles and Seattle do bring up concerns about racial and class profiling, but indirectly, because it's the area, not the individual, being profiled.

"The key to determining whether predictive policing will have a discriminatory impact is to figure out if the areas targeted are disproportionality found in communities of color," he says. But, he adds, "I have heard of no major complaints from the LA rollout of the technology."

But Ferguson calls Charlotte-Mecklenburg police chief Moore's approach of focusing on people rather than geography "troubling."

Moore argues that the approach does not constitute profiling because the model only looks at people who already have a record of criminal activity. "We could name our top 300 offenders," he says. "So we will focus on those individuals, the persons responsible for the criminal activity, regardless of who they are or where they live."

Knowing who the bad guys are and keeping an eye on them is in itself a form of predictive policing, Ferguson says, but using computers to make predictions about one person's future behavior is a different matter. "I don't think we have the technology to know with any degree of confidence who will commit the next crime," he says.

But Moore argues that predicting when and where known criminals offend next will be more effective than the areas-based approach taken by other agencies. What is the probability that the offender will offend again, in what timeframe and where? "We're not just looking for crime. We're looking for people," he says.


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