One could argue that digitalization has drastically changed the way human beings interact with one another and how we exchange information. As a result, governments are resorting to (big) data analysis to enhance organizational effectiveness. This piece seeks to shed a critical light on the use of data in crime control.
For police organizations, digitalization has changed the storage and analysis of crime data tremendously. Digital databases offer a goldmine for the identification of crime trends and developing accurate offender profiles. The digitalization phenomenon provided the impetus for a new policing paradigm: intelligence-led policing (ILP). Originally developed in the UK in the 1990s and popularized in the US after 9/11, countries like Germany, Sweden, and Serbia are now also incorporating this framework into their policing practices.
ILP involves the structural and proactive collection of data used to make strategic, tactical and operational decisions to prevent and reduce crime (E.g. Ratcliffe, 2003). Its merits lie in its ability to proactively – rather than reactively – target crime, thereby creating avenues for so-called ‘predictive policing’ – the usage of statistical analytics to identify potential criminal activity to 'stop crime before it starts.'
ILP has also taken root in The Netherlands. In 2005, the heads of police departments agreed on a common stance towards the collection and analysis of crime data. This resulted in the implementation of "Informatiegestuurd Politiewerk" (IGP) or "information-led policing." The establishment of a Business Intelligence Competence Center, regional information hubs (so-called Realtime Intelligence Centers), a Community of Intelligence and digital databases to access, add and analyze crime/suspect data (BVH, BVID, BVI-IB and BVO) are only a few examples of how intelligence-led policing takes shape within the Dutch context.
Although ILP mainly gained ground as a counter-terrorism strategy, it has now become a full-fledged business model aimed at tackling almost any type of crime – including burglaries, vandalism and disorderly conduct. It is exactly this development that causes controversy among legal scholars. Within the US context, the Patriot Act has triggered concerns about the scope of criminal behaviors law enforcement agencies target, the type of data collected, and the extent to which this information is stored or shared with other agencies. Within the Dutch context, US privacy concerns may not equally apply – as the Dutch police force is bound to strict laws on data usage – but the importance of proper legal frameworks should not be underestimated.
Another problematic element of ILP can be found in the core of its philosophy. Underlying ILP’s philosophy is the assumption that many crimes are caused by a small group of prolific and serious offenders. This assumption legitimizes the establishment of offender-profiles. The set-up of these profiles can be counter-productive, namely through the (potential) practice of ethnic profiling – a discriminatory practice which undermines public trust and legitimacy of police forces in local communities.
In addition to these concerns, the implementation of ILP involves major organizational changes for the law enforcement agency involved. The OSCE Guidebook on ILP stipulates that legislative frameworks are required to safeguard the agency’s compliance with human rights and data protection standards. Organizational structures have to be revised in order to facilitate information flows, and organizational units should be equipped with technological tools to process the information. The implementation of ILP also requires the staff’s awareness of the value of information, and knowledge and skills to acquire and analyze this information.
So, what to make of the emergence of this policing paradigm? It is evident that the adoption of digital analysis techniques has the potential to greatly facilitate the task of proactively fighting crime. From a legal perspective, however, ILP does pose critical risks to citizens’ rights such as privacy and equal treatment. Practically, the launch of ILP also requires fundamental changes to the organizational structure and culture of law enforcement agencies to succeed. With the reorganization of Dutch police forces into one centralized corps, the opportunities for sharing and analyzing data across regional police units on a national scale have grown. This makes a critical review of advantages and potential drawbacks of intelligence-led policing only of greater importance. A careful and intelligent use of data is not only pivotal to effective crime control; it also prevents the police from distancing itself from the citizens it is trying to protect.