Predictive Policing: Yay or Nay?

24 Aug

The New York Times recently published an article about a new trend emerging – predictive policing.  In 
brief: a computer program has been developed and is being implemented 
in Santa Cruz to predict locations and blocks of time where certain 
crimes are most likely to occur.  It sounds like the system is 
evidence based: that is to say, based on an input of data on crime 
events in the city in the past, it spits out a sort of extrapolation 
on what might happen in the future, and when.  And evidently, they 
made an arrest utilizing that system already. 

It reminds me of a story I heard on NPR a week or two ago about someone who developed a program to predict insurgent attacks in the 
Middle East. The same deal: that these attacks could be predicted and 
prepared for ahead of time using a number of different factors as 
inputs – current political and/or economic climate, history of 
previous attacks, etc. etc.

What concerns me about this is how it might a) infringe on civil 
rights and b) be a tool that’s utilized to profile and discriminate 
against people.  In the article, it says that two women were arrested 
for looking inside of cars. That sounds deeply problematic to me. If 
we start swiping up everyone who looks suspicious on the street 
because a computer told us to watch out for the bad guys, we’re going 
to have a whole lot of poor brown people with nonviolent offenses 
sitting in the jail again.

It also doesn’t seem like a viable financial balm for the current 
local and state budgetary issues.  Correctional facilities around the 
country are currently purging like mad – they’re overcrowded and are even considering releasing people left 
and right, whether or not they’ve served out their sentence, because 
they just don’t have the space or the money to continue to house 
them.  Departments are interested in using this predictive policing 
method to utilize their funds more efficiently, but this sounds pretty 
counter-productive in the long run.

And, maybe most unsettling of all to me is how it rings quite like 
another 1-size-fits-all, smoke-screen kind of solution to a problem 
that deserves a much more nuanced approach (let me not even GET INTO 
the long, fraught history of US correctional approaches and the 
absence of PROVEN EFFECTIVE educational alternatives….AHHH).  This 
runs the risk of being yet another way we set up a huge, sparkly shiny 
facade to make everyone feel safe and protected, but instead we’re 
looking at the blinking red dot of danger the computer tells us to 
focus on, while the real world (and real crime) takes place everywhere 

This post is brought to you by Chloe, who somewhat successfully avoided going off on several tangential rants here.

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