The ability to stop crime before it happens has long been a goal of law enforcement and the criminal justice system. Scared straight programs, education and outreach, and surveillance are all geared at preventing possible crimes. But science fiction has always been more interested in preventing crime by predicting them with technology. This idea (and its faults) were the core of the 2002 film Minority Report, in which Tom Cruise headed a “PreCrime” division that arrested folks for the crimes they are supposed to commit in the future. We may still be lightyears away from predicting specific crimes and perpetrators, but several police departments in California have been testing a way to predict crimes in a somewhat more general fashion.
Based on a mathematical algorithm developed by UCLA, this new computerized “predictive policing” program essentially expands the practice of identifying high-crime areas and increasing police presence there. The algorithm uses years of crime statistics to predict, theoretically “with pinpoint accuracy”, where crimes are most likely to happen on any day. It provides police officers 500x500ft boxes that are “crime hot-spots” for the day in questions, which they then patrol as many times as their duties allow. The tactic seems to be fairly similar to traditional patrol and high-visibility approaches, but within a more highly focused, technologically-predicted area.
According to the evidence so far (albeit admittedly anecdotal), this computerized predictive policing seems to work in the places it’s been tested. Crime rates dropped by 25% in Santa Cruz when the program was tested there in Summer 2011. LAPD will be rolling the program out city-wide later this year, after testing in the Foothill area of northern Los Angeles showed a drop in non-violent crimes “from around 50 a week to nearer 40”. The testing even included a control group where officers were assigned randomly generated “boxes” to patrol, which lends added strength to the test’s results.
While proponents are very enthusiastic about computerized predictive policing being able to help free up the time of law enforcement officials and more effectively target problem areas, not everyone is convinced. With Minority Report the most accessible metaphor for the program, civil libertarians are worried about it leading to the kinds of human rights infringements and abuses present in that film. On a less paranoid, more legal front, the program raises some concerns about whether simply being within the targeted box constitutes “reasonable suspicion” under the Fourth Amendment. Does simply “looking suspicious” within a targeted box give the cops the right to search you? If they do and find something illegal in your possession, is that grounds for arrest?