Saturday, November 9, 2013

GateHouse: The perils of crime forecasting

Matthew T. Mangino
GateHouse News Service
November 8, 2013
Imagine a crime-fighting model that rushes police not to where a crime has just been committed, but to where a crime is going to be committed.
Does that sound like the plot of a futuristic sci-fi movie?  The concept is not only possible — it is a reality in a number of cities across the country. 
The idea of forecasting crime, in much the same way meteorologists forecast weather, has turned the law enforcement community on its head. The old model — dial 911, police dispatched, criminal gone — has been discarded for sophisticated computer generated models that predict were crime is going to occur.
“We’re entering a new era of police work where advances in technology are providing us with an additional tool to use in our crime prevention efforts,” Fort Lauderdale (Fla.) Police Chief Frank Adderley told Fast Company Magazine. “Integrating advanced data analysis into our operational strategies will help us maximize resources and stay one step ahead of the criminals.”
Jeremy Heffner of Azavea, a firm specializing in geographic information system mapping, told Temple University’s Philadelphia Neighborhoods, “You can kind of think of crime as a disease. If a crime happens, we can see how it affects the likelihood that another incident is going to happen within a certain area in a certain amount of time after that.”
Heffner suggests that if a residential burglary occurs within a specific neighborhood, the chances that another will occur in that neighborhood increases as a result of the first crime, much like a contained outbreak of disease in a given area.
Jeffrey Brantingham, co-founder of the predictive policing company PredPol, explained his company’s software to Government Technology magazine. PredPol takes information about crime being committed — when and where it happens — and applies mathematical algorithms, and uses it as the basis to forecast where crime will happen in the future.
The concept grew out of using crime mapping and hot spots to track where crime is occurring. Instead of push pins placed on a precinct cork board, a computer churns out data driven trends about a street, neighborhood or whole community.
Forecasting models are dynamic; they can change. As data is analyzed the forecast is updated in real time.  This allows police officers to adapt to the contours and patterns of the model and effectively utilize crime fighting resources.
Brantingham is quick to point out that while the forecasting models are about predicting crime, they are not a profiling tool to identify who is committing crimes.
“We’re actually not saying anything about who, we are saying something about where and when crime is most likely to occur regardless of who may or may not be prone to commit those crimes,” he told Government Technology.
And this is where it gets tricky. The United States Constitution protects people from unlawful searches and seizures. The Fourth Amendment provides that any search, arrest or detention will be based on reasonable suspicion or probable cause.
Can a computer loaded with data provide the requisite level of suspicion? Does American jurisprudence permit the sacrifice of the rights of an occasional outlier for the sake of the greater good? That is a fundamental question of justice.  Eighteenth-century English jurist William Blackstone said, "It is better that 10 guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer.”
Andrew Guthrie Ferguson, a law professor at the University of the District of Columbia who has focused his research on crime forecasting software told National Public Radio that the departments using crime forecasting have told police not to use it as a basis for stops.
"The idea that you wouldn't use something that is actually part of the officer's suspicion and not put that in — [that] may come to a head when that officer is testifying," Ferguson added.
To what extent will liberty suffer to protect the public from crime or the potential of crime?
Matthew T. Mangino is of counsel with Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly and George and the former district attorney for Lawrence County, Pa. You can read his blog at and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewTMangino.
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