September 11th, 2016
(written by lawrence krubner, however indented passages are often quotes). You can contact lawrence at: firstname.lastname@example.org
If a town starts off, years ago, policing an area heavily because that area is black, and therefore many incidents in that area are formally reported, and then software is used to look for patterns of reports, and the software highlights the black areas, then we are using software to legitimate the over-policing of certain neighborhoods.
The fact that we even call these systems “predictive” is itself a telling sign of excessive confidence in the systems. The systems really make general forecasts, not specific predictions. A more responsible term — and one more accurately evocative of the uncertainty inherent in these systems, would be “forecasting.”
The systems we found also appear not to track details about enforcement practices or community needs, which means that departments are missing potentially powerful opportunities to assess their performance more holistically and to avoid problems within their ranks.
In an overwhelming majority of cases, departments operate predictive systems with no apparent governing policies, and open public discussion about the adoption of these systems seems to be the exception to the rule. Though federal and state grant money has helped fuel the adoption of these systems, that money comes with few real strings in terms of transparency, accountability, and meaningfully involving the public.
In our survey of the nation’s 50 largest police forces, we found that at least 20 of them have used a predictive policing system, with at least an additional 11 actively exploring options to do so. Yet some sources indicate that 150 or more departments may be moving toward these systems with pilots, tests, or new deployments.
Our study finds a number of key risks in predictive policing, and a trend of rapid, poorly informed adoption in which those risks are often not considered. We believe that conscientious application of data has the potential to improve police practices in the future. But we found little evidence that today’s systems live up to their claims, and significant reason to fear that they may reinforce disproportionate and discriminatory policing practices.