FOIA'ed DOJ Report Points Out The Downsides Of Relying On 'Predictive Policing' To Fight Crime

from the making-tradeoffs-without-considering-the-majority-of-stakeholders dept

The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) has obtained a DOJ report on predictive policing via a FOIA lawsuit. The document dates back to 2014 but it shows the DOJ had concerns about the negative side effects of predicting where crime may occur by using data that details where crime has happened.

The report [PDF] contains some limited data from trial runs of predictive policing efforts. One of these tests ran from 2009 to 2012 in Shreveport, Louisiana. Using historic property crime data, along with 911 calls and the number of residents on parole or probation, the analytic software attempted to predict where future crime might occur and where police presence might be increased to prevent crime.

The results were inconclusive:

The RAND Corporation evaluated the program and found that property crime decreased by approximately 35% in the first four months of the seven-month evaluation period as compared with the control districts. After those first four months, however, the SPD reduced its intervention efforts, and property crime reverted back to the same level as the control districts. The RAND evaluation concluded that additional research should be done.

More research was underway at the time the report was written, but the results hadn’t been compiled at the time of this publication. Other efforts not involving the DOJ reported similar results: an immediate drop in the type of crime targeted. But there’s no data in the report indicating this resulted in long-term declines in criminal activity or whether targeting one area resulted in criminal activity migrating elsewhere.

The report notes that almost all federal law enforcement agencies are (or were) using some sort of analytics to determine crime hot spots and areas where enforcement should be targeted. As of 2014, none of them were using actual “predictive policing” software, but all were engaged in some sort of crime-modeling.

The DOJ says predictive policing efforts show promise but contain numerous downsides. Efforts like these could conceivably result in more efficient law enforcement activity, directing already-depleted resources to areas in need of the most attention. The DOJ even theorizes that swamping “high crime areas” with additional officers might somehow result in better relationships with those communities. But that theory really doesn’t square with the downsides noted in the report, which indicate flooding certain areas with more cops is only going to increase the tension between these public servants and the public they serve.

Part of the problem is “garbage in/garbage out.” If law enforcement agencies have historically engaged in biased policing and enforcement efforts, all predictive policing software does is tell those officers they were correct to do so. Junk data created by biased policing will only generate biased predictions.

Legal authorities provide some guidance about the degree to which race, national origin, and other protected or immutable characteristics may be considered. Critics have noted that proxies for protected characteristics, or for socioeconomic characteristics, can make their way into analyses as well. Even when the variables seem neutral, any model is susceptible to importing any biases reflected in the underlying data.

Biased policing is a problem everywhere. This has been the rule, rather than the exception, in the US, resulting in dozens of consent decrees with the DOJ meant to eliminate bias and restrict unnecessary use of force. Feeding a bunch of unjustified stops and arrests into a system wholly reliant on the data being fed to it turns supposedly-neutral software into a confirmation-bias generator.

Equally as troubling is the unavoidable outcome of predictive policing: the permission to punish people for things other people did.

There is also a fundamental question about what decisions should be based on historical, broad-based data rather than on individualized conduct. It would make little sense to deploy resources without an understanding of where they are most needed, and fewer concerns have been raised about the potential for misuse of data for these purposes (although, at a basic level, additional police deployment can mean additional law enforcement scrutiny for individuals who live in those areas).

In practical terms, living in the wrong zip code — or even the wrong end of a block — turns people into suspected criminals, even when there’s no evidence they’ve committed any crimes. You can’t mend a broken community relationship by flooding an area with cops just because crimes were committed there at some point in the past. Predictive policing allows cops to view everyone in certain areas as inherently suspicious, which isn’t going to result in residents feeling better about the influx of officers flooding their neighborhoods.

Despite the DOJ’s caveats, law enforcement agencies are still looking to predictive policing to solve their problems. As far as the limited data shows, it’s at best a temporary fix. But those looking for a decline in crime numbers seem willing to ignore the long-term negative effects of focusing on areas where crime might be happening based on little more than where crime once was.

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Comments on “FOIA'ed DOJ Report Points Out The Downsides Of Relying On 'Predictive Policing' To Fight Crime”

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Anonymous Coward says:

But those looking for a decline in crime numbers seem willing to ignore the long-term negative effects of focusing on areas where crime might be happening based on little more than where crime once was.

Hey. I don’t think so. I very much doubt the group you seem to be talking about is actually looking for ‘a decline in crime numbers’. I suspect they actually want the opposite. However taking action that they can alleged will result in that decrees will "justify" their fetishes.

This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it.

Anonymous Coward says:

Crime! Predicting crime! As fear over the new coronavirus in New York spreads faster than the outbreak, people have started to steal masks and other medical equipment from local hospitals,” Andrew Cuomo, said earlier this month.

Even the New York Times reported on March 19: “’We’ve experienced outright theft, with the general public walking into our building and walking right out,’ said Bruno Petinaux, the hospital’s chief medical officer.” The outrage seems to only be aimed at the president.

Cher launches bizarre rants against the president nearly everyday. Some of her most notable tirades have seen her compare President Trump to Nazi leader Adolf Hitler and describing him as a “cancer ravaging our nation.”

You socialist idiots are ALL criminals.

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re:

"Crime! Predicting crime!"

Something liberals – us "socialist idiots" predicted wouldn’t work too well. But republicans and ultra-authoritarians tried to push because, apparently, they believed in soothsayers and black magic making policing more efficient.

"You socialist idiots are ALL criminals."

Lamentably it’s exactly that tendency of alt-right morons believing opinion is a crime which has led the US police to becoming ineffective at actually fighting crime.

"Some of her most notable tirades have seen her compare President Trump to Nazi leader Adolf Hitler…"

You can’t blame her when people like you are the ones voting for him. The belief that having an opinion you don’t agree with must be criminal is only found in the doctrine of classical nazism and old-style stalinism.

Anonymous Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

What resources got depleted?

"Efforts like these could conceivably result in more efficient law enforcement activity, directing already-depleted resources to areas in need of the most attention."

What depletion was that? Was there a significant layoff of police officers? Did some whole departments disappear? Did the Dept. of Defense stop selling/giving their out of date (but shockingly over the top for the use intended) equipment to peace officers? Was there a downturn in civil asset collections that tend to fund more civil asset collections?

Anon says:

Predictive Oppression

So what – who cares what the computers say? The question is – what do you do about it? More patrols? More invasive checking? All this does is create a Big Brother state for the "lucky few" and then ignores the Schrodinger Effect". If the police keep looking in one box, the cat – and more crimes – will pop out of other boxes. Crooks will go where the heat is off. Since the computers have no data on human reactions to altered patrol density (or other oppression) it cannot predict crime has moved 10 blocks east, nor that groups with fists will replace solitary armed thugs, nor any one of a dozen other possible outcomes.

The joke is you can’t make computers idiot-proof because idiots are so clever.

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Predictive Oppression

"Crooks will go where the heat is off."

I’ll do you one better. If predictive policing ever becomes a standard then there will be enough money in it for organized criminals to hire hackers to obtain the algorithm and database the police uses, and sell it on. From which point on you can expect every crime to happen exactly where the police have been told there would be no need to patrol.

Anonymous Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

Predictive Policing Analogy

Darts, which represent the actions take by police.

Dart Boards, which are segmented with high crime areas represented in the larger segments.

Blind Folded Dart Throwers, which is how police management determines where to deploy their assets.

Score keeping, which is the analysis of the studies done to date.

What could go wrong is that someone will claim their predictive policing worked, and that someone else will believe them.

ECA (profile) says:


Trying to see if Cops can do the job??

What would detur Crime.

  1. consistency. Be seen, be there.
  2. Cops should know the area, and know Some of the people. They changed long ago from Neighborhood Policing to sending in Different cops all the time, Which means the cops didnt always know who was who, or doing WHAT.
  3. be abit random in going thru areas. Even the Thief can watch your timing.
  4. if you didnt know. There is a Tide of people going and coming from a neighborhood.. the times people goto work, regular, swing, night. As well as when people goto the store, school, ..,.. knowing Who is around at times is abit important. And what changes happen and need to be investigated.
  5. YOU CAN WORK WITH THE PEOPLE. YOU CAN BE NICE. I would love for a police officer to have at least 5 years in retail, at the registers or on floor customer service.

I could put a list of all the types of people you can meet, but would never cover all the exaggerations of the persona’s you will find. Shoving a person into a position to be a Doctor, psychologist, referee, and learning to control people is NOT an easy job. Unless you just shoot them all.

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