Predictive policing software does not prevent crime 

Faulty Predictions

"To be preventive instead of reactive" — this was the phrase used by Charleston Police Chief Gregory Mullen on June 11 to describe the new agreement between the City of Charleston and IBM to launch a predictive policing program.

Predictive policing examines data sources as diverse as police and weather reports to determine probable areas and times when crime is likely to occur. The logic is that by stepping up patrols where crime is statistically more probable, crime will become easier to prevent, or, at least, it will lead to more and faster arrests.

Charleston is not the only city in the nation to try out this sort of futuristic method of crime-fighting and, naturally, not the only place where concerns are being raised about the nature of the program and how it fits in with our legal traditions, especially the Fourth Amendment. Predictive policing also raises suspicions that it either legitimizes racial profiling or at the very least gives the police a much wider latitude of probable cause with which to challenge citizens or force a consent to a search. On top of this, some wonder if it goes beyond criminalizing actions to criminalizing the simple fact of being in the wrong place and at the wrong time.

Others critics find it strange that these programs are gaining credibility as having helped lower the crime rate significantly over the last few years, despite any evidence that they are anything more than tangentially responsible. After all, crime in the U.S. is declining overall.

While these are certainly valid concerns about a program that is essentially going to direct police action in Charleston for the foreseeable future, there is a much deeper problem with the program as touted by the police chief. The simple fact is predictive policing is not preventive at all. It is merely a different kind of reactive.

A truly preventive solution to the problems of crime in this area, and in the nation, can only come when we identify and accept the root causes of crime and create an effective means of getting people out of the conditions and situations that are likely to turn them into violent offenders. If we can create a computer system to track where crime is occurring, why can we not ask for one that tracks why crime occurs?

Like many of the larger issues facing the country, this is not as simple as pointing the finger at any one value and saying, "This is what we need to fix." Contrary to the insane logic of racism, locking up even more black people will not end violent crime. Nor will putting prayer back in schools, because certainly there is not one person who would deny that some truly horrific crimes were committed back when this nation was decidedly more pious than it is today.

Conservatives point to the system of welfare and public housing, which, in their view, raised entire generations of children in low-income communities to be dependent on the government for their needs. However, merely ending those programs will not solve the problems in those communities, nor will it end crime.

No, these solutions are all merely pet projects of individuals with particular agendas to advance. They do not offer any more solutions to the problem of violent crime than predictive policing does. They are easy answers that avoid the underlying question and would not serve to prevent crime.

If and when the causes of crime are understood, real solutions will require a massive amount of money and effort to be allocated into some very politically and socially unpopular areas and programs. Many might argue that it would simply be more "cost effective" to use predictive policing and build more prisons.

The question for the future should not be how much we are willing to spend to make policing more effective, but what we are willing to spend to actually reduce violent crime.

Mat Catastrophe has a communications degree that many argue he still doesn't use. He lives in Mt. Pleasant.


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