Mimesis Law
28 February 2021

Chicago’s Predictive Policing Fail

August 22, 2016 (Fault Lines) — Algorithms prove no better than premonitions as Chicago’s crime prevention initiative comes under fire. Since 2013, the Chicago Police Department has utilized a sort of pre-crime approach reminiscent of Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report. Just as Tom Cruise’s Chief John Anderton uncovered flaws with premonitions as well as data manipulations, the RAND Corporation’s recently released study outlines the shortcomings of Chicago’s algorithm generated Strategic Subjects List.

Originally touted as a means to identify those most likely to be involved in a shooting, the list was supposed to provide law enforcement with a means to prevent shootings. The idea was to identify the subjects, have police check in on them periodically, and provide social services to help avoid the dangers.

The list is created through an algorithm that ranks and identifies people most likely to be perpetrators or victims of gun violence based on data points like prior narcotics arrests, gang affiliation and age at the time of last arrest. The goal was two-fold according to Christopher Mallette, executive director of the Chicago Violence Reduction Strategy group:

We want to show them the carrot and the stick. We want them to know they can get help — but we also want them to know that if they don’t keep in line, there’s a jail cell waiting for them.

Sounds great, right? What could possibly go wrong? Surely the altruistic goal would be carried out and lives would be saved.

Except the RAND group found the program saved no lives at all. Instead, Chicago police used it as a means to target people for arrest.

[T]he study from RAND, which was granted extraordinary access to CPD when it launched the list in 2013, found that the program has saved no lives at all. The RAND researchers were allowed to view the list, sit in on internal meetings, and generally observe how the tool was being used. They discovered that CPD wasn’t using the list as a way to provide social services; instead, CPD was using it as a way to target people for arrest.

According to the report:

The individuals on the SSL were considered to be ‘persons of interest’ to the CPD. Overall … there was no practical direction about what to do with individuals on the SSL, little executive or administrative attention paid to the pilot, and little to no follow-up with district commanders.

[A]t-risk individuals were not more or less likely to become victims of a homicide or shooting as a result of the SSL, and this is further supported by city-level analysis finding no effect on the city homicide trend.

Instead, the researchers found that the list simply served to find suspects and potential suspects after the fact. Essentially categorized as a fancy data driven most-wanted list, police used the list to solve already completed crimes.

But what about those social services? Didn’t they help?

Well, according to the study, not only did the list fail to keep subjects away from violent crime, but it failed to address issues because the subjects were no more likely to receive social services.

Jonathan Lewin, Chicago PD’s chief technology officer, told Mic last year that the program was an effort to save lives, to find people vulnerable to violent crime so that they can get services like job training and drug treatment. It was not intended to identify targets for arrest.

“When someone calls 911, something’s already happened,” Lewin said while talking about Chicago’s predictive policing. “We’re trying to get ahead of that problem before it escalates into a tragic outcome. Chicago isn’t the only place intervening with risky people in order to save lives. We’re just doing it with science.”

Despite the department’s goal to provide services, they gave little to no direction to the officers in the field.

[A] key problem with the program is how police followed up with those who made the list. In a “majority of districts,” police were either told nothing about how to deal with list subjects, or only instructed to increase contact with them.

“It is not at all evident that contacting people at greater risk of being involved in violence — especially without further guidance on what to say to them or otherwise how to follow up — is the relevant strategy to reduce violence,” the study says.

No doubt social services could help. But, there appeared to have been no plan in place to actually refer those on the list for services. There appeared to be no actual services waiting to be used. Officers were simply being told to “increase contact” with those on the list; the net result was simply more arrests of those on the list.

Jessica Saunders, the lead author of the study, summed it up best:

If we’re going to go down this road of prediction, we need to spend time thinking about how we might use this kind of list. I think these things are good ideas, but they’re not ready to be put in the field, because no one knows what to do with them.

As they say, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Arresting those who “might” commit a crime may very well save the victim, much like murder was eliminated in Minority Report, but at what cost? Apparently, the cost is arresting people on the list more often because police contact is increased with those on the list. The benefit of diverting these people through increased social services was virtually non-existent. Instead, the list perpetuated the same old system: more police arrests and more contact with a criminal justice system that doesn’t do enough to rehabilitate.

Providing social services can be an effective means of combating crime. But perhaps we should leave that to social workers and other charitable or educational groups rather than the police. They meant to carry it out, but they didn’t. It’s just not what they are trained to do. As shown in this predictive policing fail, it just doesn’t work.

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