In the last year the Dutch police made several announcements (links in Dutch) stating that they will be implementing new technologies to predict crime, aspiring to combat crime more efficiently and effectively. The development towards a more technology-assisted police force is in line with what is called intelligence-led policing. As the name of the concept implies, intelligence-led policing aims to use data and data analysis to improve police performance. Data such as crimes committed in the past and neighborhoods characteristics would be able to point out where and when crimes will be committed in the future. This logic was also used by the Dutch chief of police in October of last year: “the [police] force has so much data available, but the systems are not properly connected. We need people who can do that and who can analyze the data. Who can, as it were, predict when and in what form crime will occur.”
Pre-crime and promises
The ability to predict where and when crimes will take place is of course the dream of every police organization. It would enable them to prevent crime from happening, resulting in a much safer society. Although predicting crime may seem like a far-fetched idea to many, the idea of pre-crime is not all that odd to police organizations. Often references are made to the book or film Minority Report, where a mix of technology and human oracles are able to see the future and therefore where crimes will be committed and by whom. Although the current state of the art does not include the use of oracles (as far as I know), new technologies do make similar promises. Hitachi developed a system that according to them will be able to predict crime and so has Microsoft. The Fresno police force even developed a system that can assign threat scores to citizens. The idea of predictive policing has therefore been gaining attention in the world of policing.
Although technology, intelligence-led policing and predictive policing carry the promise of a more efficient and effective police force, a recent report (in Dutch) on the Dutch police also gives reason to doubt these promises. One of the conclusions of the report was that the ICT infrastructure of the police was not up-to-date and not working as it should be. These results put an interesting twist on the ambitions of the Dutch police to implement intelligence-led and predictive policing programs. The core of these approaches is to collect, connect and analyze information. If the databases and systems do not function properly or cannot be connected, this will have negative implications for the analysis. This leads to questions regarding how accurate the ‘predictions’ will be and, since these predictions are leading in where and when to take action, if they are actually able to make police work more efficient and effective.
Faith in technology
Despite these potential downsides, policy-makers and politicians still have a lot of faith in technology (see also my previous blog on this). In their view, the new digital technologies would be able to solve problems that cannot be fixed by humans. This phenomenon is sometimes called techno fix: the trust placed in technology to fix complex societal problems. With the ‘crime prediction technologies’ often presented as all-seeing oracles by the developers, it can be hard to blame policy-makers for these views. However, with all the statements being made about the capabilities and the amount of government funding used for development, police organizations should make sure they are ready to use such advanced technologies and provide empirical evidence on the benefits thereof.
This blog post is an adapted version of a blog by the same author on the Leiden Law Blog