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Predictive policing

In the Steven Spielberg SF film Minority Report police use psychics to predict when a crime is going to happen. Real police prefer digital databases.

By entering detailed information about where, when and what types of crimes have occurred, it is possible to forecast future crimes and deploy officers accordingly. Predictive policing is now in use in a number of US cities, including Los Angeles and — most recently — Seattle, where a scheme went live in February. It is being applied in other countries — West Midlands Police in the UK are trying out the method; in South Africa, game wardens use the same tools to identify likely poaching hotspots.

The technique behind it is well established. It’s called predictive analytics or predictive modelling; it uses mathematical algorithms to mine data and spot links. The technique is already being widely used by retailers. When Amazon, for example, suggests you might like some book or film, the suggestion is based on an analysis of the buying habits of customers who have bought similar items.

If computerised predictive policing catches on, Ferguson expects a test case eventually to work its way up to the US Supreme Court. In the meantime, he expects noisy kickback from civil rights groups. “That a computer can effectively curtail the Fourth Amendment rights of individuals in certain areas would be particularly troubling to the civil liberties lobby,” he says.

The Independent, 11 Jan. 2012.

Predictive policing, on the other hand, might replace such intuitive knowledge with a naive belief in the comprehensive power of statistics. If only data about reported crimes are used to predict future crimes and guide police work, some types of crime might be left unstudied — and thus unpursued.

The Observer, 10 Mar. 2013.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
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Last modified: 6 April 2013.