Is “Predictive Policing” the Law Enforcement of the Future?

In 2002, Steven Spielberg’s “Minority Report,” a film starring Tom Cruise, was released to critical acclaim. In it, the police force of the future uses a trio of psychics to predict crimes, and the police use this information as evidence to arrest the “would-be” perpetrators before they’re able to go through with it.

While we’re a long way off from using psychics to predict crimes, the LAPD has been hard at work shifting their efforts from the traditional “reactive” method to a more “proactive” form of crime-fighting.

Dubbed “predictive policing,” the LAPD has been using data they gather from separate sources and analyzing it to anticipate when and where crimes will happen. Typically, officers will respond once a crime has been reported, gather information and begin an investigation. With this new method of gathering information, police can more effectively respond to the crimes when, and sometimes before, they occur. The technology required to collect and analyze the data is still new, though police forces across the country have been including the technology in their day-to-day policing with promising results.

The champion of this new and controversial method of policing is none other than New York Police Commissioner, William Bratton. If the name sounds familiar, it’s because he was the Los Angeles Police Chief from 2002 to 2009. During his tenure in L.A., he began a collaboration between the LAPD and UCLA anthropology professor P. Jeffrey Brantingham, an expert who had previously developed special data-analysis algorithms for the Pentagon to use in the Middle East.

The algorithms were designed to predict insurgent activity in cities, towns and villages and allow the military to more appropriately deploy its forces. Those very same algorithms are now being used to predict potential crimes on the streets of Los Angeles, New York, and other U.S. cities. Even some foreign countries have employed Brantingham’s algorithms after he began to sell the software.


As you can probably imagine, organizations that protect civil liberties have huge concerns about the use of “predictive policing” tactics and the datamining of information that goes with it. As communication becomes easier and easier, thanks to email, text messages and social media, the ability to gather this information and use it for other purposes can be very enticing.

According to Bratton, citizens should trust members of their police force not to abuse their power when collecting and analyzing personal data of private citizens.
He went on to add, “There is a controlling element in law enforcement, and that’s the law.”

No matter how good police departments get at “predictive policing,” they can’t really get around the Constitution as easily in reality as they can in the movies. Police cannot arrest someone simply because their data indicates that the person is going to commit a crime soon. What they can do, though, is place police officers in an area where they will be better able to respond once the crime has been committed, or to catch the suspect in the act.

As technology improves, “predictive policing” tactics will undoubtedly be refined as well. One thing is for sure, though; you don’t have to worry about the LAPD knocking on your door to arrest you for a crime you’re likely to commit tomorrow. At least, not yet.


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