Cities are using big data to improve public safety with meaningful results.
Predictive policing, the use of sophisticated data analytics to prevent criminal activity, is gaining traction in cities across the country. Just yesterday, The Atlantic Cities recently published an overview piece on how Twitter could help police predict crime.
As the practice has spread, concerns about potential misuses or abuses, particularly in low-income communities and communities of color, have also grown. The Chicago Tribune wrote last year of a young man visited at home by a police officer warning him that he was being watched because he is on a violent crime “hot list.” The Tribune story has recently been picked up by The Verge, the ACLU and others. New York City’s deeply controversial “Stop and Frisk” policy, curtailed this year under new mayor Bill de Blasio for disproportionately targeting minority communities, was defended by former commissioner Ray Kelly because “that’s where the data says the likelihood of crimes is highest.”
Concerns have also arisen around the validity of the underlying data: for example, the police department in Milwaukee was alleged in 2012 to have downgraded offenses in order to create the appearance of a reduction in crime (see this provocative piece by Alex Howard for more on this and related issues).
As predictive policing spreads, stories of abuse raise concerns about civil rights protections and how to address inequality so that these tools can be useful and not harmful.
Accounts like these feed into a longstanding mistrust and resentment of law enforcement in low-income communities, and a painful narrative of navigating life as a person of color in America, described poignantly by Charles Blow last year in the New York Times. Police officers also suffer from these perceptions: no one wants to come to work feeling like they are in hostile territory, on guard for their lives. Addressing these concerns is vital to addressing disparities in Americans’ life chances, as well as to healing divisions between low-income city residents and those who’ve sworn to serve and protect them.
However, discarding predictive policing altogether, even if it were possible, would not only fail to solve the broader problem, but would also cost communities real gains in public safety. The Ceasefire model (now known as Cure Violence) has supported double-digit reductions in homicides in many cities by treating violence as an epidemic, like HIV-AIDS, and using highly targeted interventions to prevent outbreaks. Local Police departments nationwide have also used predictive analytics to prevent burglaries, vehicle thefts, and other crimes.
The documentary “The Interrupters” showcases the efforts of Ceasefire in Chicago.Read more.