UK: "Predictive policing" comes to the UK

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In January last year, The Independent reported that "a pioneering technique to predict crime before it happens could be imported from the United States to this country." This prediction came true in December, when Kent police began "a trial of a predictive policing model from the USA that assesses several years' worth of crime data and human behaviour to predict the areas in which offences are likely to take place." [1]

According to the Gravesend Reporter, by taking previous years' crime data and daily updates of location, time and type of crime committed, the software "creates prediction boxes of precise 500 sq ft zones which are listed in priority order as to where crimes are most likely to occur, which is then delivered to the smart phones, tablets and PCs of police officers who use it to make decisions on where to deploy." [2]

Analysis of other factors is also taken into account. A police officer featured in a France 24 report notes that "it's the real demographics of the area - the people, the places, what kind of buildings they are. Taller buildings might mean there's more crime, or less - it takes into account everything." [2]

According to the police force undertaking the trial, "the scheme is a natural extension of intelligence-led policing method pioneered by Kent Police." [3]

Criticisms and costs

Reports examining the use of the software in the US make a number of criticisms. An article in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Technology Review notes that "many crimes go unreported, which could fool predictive policing software into thinking a neighbourhood is safe." [4]

An article on the website of Palantir Technologies, a data analysis firm, concludes that "the development of predictive policing initiatives should be informed by careful consideration of the attendant privacy implications." [5]

The Kent trial began in mid-December, but it appears local authorities were only told about the scheme in mid-January, when Chief Inspector Philip Painter made a presentation to the Gravesham Borough Council's Crime and Disorder Scrutiny Committee. [6]

The trial will cost £125,000, and councillors given presentations were apparently "sceptical - one worried that it would leave rural areas without police cover, another was concerned that it would mean job cuts," according to the Gravesend Reporter. However, the Council's own report notes that "some Members felt that the software was innovative and provided a tool for more effective use of resources." [7]

The software used for analysis is called PredPol, which is developed by a company of the same name. It "provides targeted, real-time crime prediction designed for and successfully tested by officer in the field." [8]

"Based on models for predicting aftershocks from earthquakes, PredPol's patent-pending technology forecasts highest risk times and places for future crimes," says the company's website.

From across the Atlantic

The UK arm of PredPol was incorporated just four months before Kent Police began their trial, and operates from an office on Dover Street in West London. Documents filed with Companies House show that the director is Caleb Baskin, whose address is registered in Santa Cruz, California; the firm's secretary is listed as High Street Partners, which is "the leader in international business software and services."

High Street Partners says its "mission is to simplify the management and control of existing international operations and any planned international expansion, so our clients can capitalise on their overseas growth opportunities." [9]

Police Oracle has referred to the Kent trial as an "extraordinary initiative". The magazine reports that implementation of the software in Kent has been led by Detective Chief Superintendent Jon Sutton, after he was told about it by Chief Constable Ian Learmonth. [10]

Minority Report?

As with many reports examining the use of the software in the USA, the Gravesend Reporter notes that it is "reminiscent of the Tom Cruise film, Minority Report." In the film, individuals are targeted by the authorities based not on what they have done, but on what it is predicted they will do in the future. [11]

A US presentation based on work done by the RAND Corporation is keen to note that the system isn't "Minority Report, a crystal ball, ESP, a revolution that will change everything, etc." [12]

"If you are doing crime mapping you are already doing a basic form of predictive policing," says the presentation. In January 2011, the UK Home Office launched a crime mapping initiative which gave the public "instant access to street-level crime maps and data." [13]

The think-tank Policy Exchange - who have previously produced work criticised for encouraging "the curtailment of civil liberties and the narrowing of political debate" [14] - hosted an event last January at which police and academics from the US and the UK debated the issue of predictive policing. A video of the event can be viewed via their website. [15]

Slides from the event, presented by Los Angeles police chief Charlie Beck, demonstrate some of the effects of the introduction of predictive policing into Los Angeles, which included significant decreases in crime in the area covered. They are available from the Police Exchange Website. [16]

However, the slides make little mention of some of the issues that may be raised by predictive policing, for example in relation to privacy or discrimination. A blog on the website of security firm Sophos criticises the lack of attention paid by the Los Angeles police to privacy and anti-profiling training. [17]

A long-term plan?

At least one UK police representative has been to the US to discuss predictive policing. Jeremy Crump, Director of Strategy from the soon-to-be defunct National Policing Improvement Agency, was present at "The First Predictive Policing Symposium", held in Los Angeles in November 2009.

He noted that "they haven't used the term predictive policing in UK yet. The fundamentals of predictive policing have been a driver for UK for some time though." Crump highlighted three issues "that are critical to success of predictive policing":

- Prediction isn't just about places, it's about people
- Accountability is vital
- Resources and capabilities [18]

Another document indicates that police interest in predictive policing software has been of interest to the UK police for some time. A National Policing Improvement Agency "action plan for improving knowledge use in policing 2010-2012" said that the agency planned to "develop and share tools and materials that facilitate the service's use of knowledge," including "predictive policing and data mining tools." [19]

It seems there may be plans for predictive policing software to be implemented nationwide, at least for a trial period. Police Oracle report that Kent Police are apparently "ultimately anticipating rolling out the initiative to the rest of the force for a year." [20]

[1] Nigel Morris, 'Predictive policing' could come to UK, The Independent, 26 January 2012; Advanced crime prediction model trialled, Police Oracle, 17 December 2012
[2] Anna Dubuis, Mapping crime before it happens, Gravesend Reporter, 24 January 2013
[3] Predictive Policing: Tackling crime before it happens, France 24, 25 February 2013
[4] Kent Police, Ground-breaking policing scheme piloted in Kent, 13 December 2013
[5] Brian Bergstein, The problem with our data obsession, MIT Technology Review, 20 February 2013
[6] Predictive policing: A window into future crimes or future privacy violations?, Palantir, 24 September 2012
[7] Presentation of the new 'PredPol' (Predictive Policing) software tool by Chief Inspector Painter, Gravesham Borough Council Crime and Disorder Scrutiny Committee (Item 23), 14 January 2013
[8] Ibid.
[9] PredPol website
[10] High Street Partners, Who We Are
[11] Advanced crime prediction model trialled, Police Oracle, 17 December 2012
[12] Ibid. at [2]
[13] John S. Hollywood, Susan C. Smith, Carter Price, BRian McInnis, Walt Perry, Predictive Policing: What it is, what it isn't, and where it can be useful, Rand Corporation
[14] UK Home Office, Street-level crime maps
[15] How Policy Exchange and the Centre for Social Cohesion encourage The Cold War on British Muslims, Spinwatch, 2 August 2011
[16] Pre-Crime and Predictive Policing, Police Exchange, 25 January 2012
[17] Charlie Beck, The Los Angeles predictive policing experiment
[18] Lisa Vaas, Predictive policing brings burglary numbers down, but is privacy at risk?, Naked Security, 3 July 2012
[19] The First Predictive Policing Symposium, November 18-20 2009
[20] National Policing Improvement Agency, Policing Knowledge: Sharing what we know, learning what we don't: an action plan for improving knowledge in policing 2010-2012,
[21] Ibid. at [11]

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