Minority Report…still fiction or now fact?

Can Crime Prediction Work?

In the 2002 hit film Minority Report, murders were prevented by being predicted. Their “Precrime” law enforcement consisted of psychics (“Pre-Cogs”) who could see murders before they happened, sending their visions to police. The police would then stop the murderers before they committed their crime. The movie’s main character, John Anderton, is a police officer who sees his own murder before it happens, and then goes on the run while attempting to discover what led him to this ironic decision.

Now, crime prediction as a form of law enforcement has gone from being a work of sci-fi to being a thing of reality. Los Angeles and Santa Cruz Police Departments are experimenting with crime prediction using mathematical models and algorithms. And the results are incredibly positive. But is this really the best method to employ for law enforcement, or is it possible for someone to wind up in the same situation as Mr. Anderton?

Amazingly, the LAPD began playing around with crime prediction after they entered crime data into an earthquake aftershock prediction math model. The model predicts aftershocks which occur after earthquakes. Surprisingly, the LAPD discovered many similarities between earthquakes and human behavior.

Like aftershocks to earthquakes, crime in a given area is likely to occur after crime is committed there. The predictive software, called PredPol, assigns police officers to a small geographical area after determining that crime would be committed there (based on the fact that it had occurred at that place in the past). Police were skeptical, but the experimental crime prediction has shown a steep decrease in burglaries, violent crimes and property crimes in the LA area.

Big data not only helps prevent crimes from occurring, but sheds light upon the root causes of crime as well. Studying this data allows for a closer look at the sociology that breeds criminal patterns (such as poverty, location, family dynamics and school patterns). Understanding the root cause of the problem is the most effective means of preventing the problem on a more permanent basis.

Because of its success in LA, PredPol is now being used on a trial basis in more than 150 U.S. cities. But could this eventually result in people being falsely accused of intending to commit crimes, and being punished before they get to commit them?

Not likely. The method employed by PredPol seeks to prevent crime, not punish it. In Minority Report, would-be criminals are arrested and charged with crimes they haven’t actually gotten the chance to commit. This real life application of the predictive technology stops at preventing crime, without issuing any punishments. And so far, this technology isn’t being employed at the singular or even the main tool of law enforcement; it is only being used as a supplemental aid to the experience-based tactics already in use by seasoned police officers.

Far from being a perpetuator of victimization, it seems that using big data for crime prediction is actually stopping victimization in its tracks. By strategically placing the police in high-crime areas at crucial times, it helps prevent the actions of crimes from being committed. And by highlighting the patterns which exist on socioeconomic level, it helps us to understand the making of a crime and criminal. With understanding comes solutions. Big data is likely helping us finally get at the harsh factors which cause people to pursue crime, and hopefully now is the time we can effectively address those factors, solve the issues, and create a more peaceful world to live in.

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