Police Program Aims to Pinpoint Those Most Likely to Commit Crimes

John Eligon and Timothy Williams, New York Times, September 24, 2015

At the request of his probation officer, Tyrone C. Brown came to a community auditorium here in June and sat alongside about 30 other mostly young black men with criminal records–men who were being watched closely by the police, just as he was.

He expected to hear an admonition from law enforcement officials to help end violence in the community. But Mr. Brown, 29, got more than he had bargained for. A police captain presented a slide show featuring mug shots of people they were cracking down on. Up popped a picture of Mr. Brown linking him to a criminal group that had been implicated in a homicide.

“I was disturbed,” said Mr. Brown, who acknowledges having been involved in crime but denied that he had ever been involved in a killing.

That discomfort was just the reaction the authorities were after.

Mr. Brown, whose criminal record includes drug and assault charges, is at the center of an experiment taking place in dozens of police departments across the country, one in which the authorities have turned to complex computer algorithms to try to pinpoint the people most likely to be involved in future violent crimes–as either predator or prey. The goal is to do all they can to prevent the crime from happening.

The strategy, known as predictive policing, combines elements of traditional policing, like increased attention to crime “hot spots” and close monitoring of recent parolees. But it often also uses other data, including information about friendships, social media activity and drug use, to identify “hot people” and aid the authorities in forecasting crime.

The program here has been named the Kansas City No Violence Alliance, or KC NoVA. And the message on that June night to Mr. Brown and the others was simple: The next time they, or anyone in their crews, commit a violent act, the police will come after everyone in the group for whatever offense they can make stick, no matter how petty.

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The use of computer models by local law enforcement agencies to forecast crime is part of a larger trend by governments and corporations that are increasingly turning to predictive analytics and data mining in looking at behaviors. Typically financed by the federal government, the strategy is being used by dozens of police departments–including Los Angeles, Miami and Nashville–and district attorneys’ offices in Manhattan and Philadelphia.

At a time when many police departments are under fire for aggressive tactics, particularly in minority neighborhoods, advocates say predictive policing can help improve police-community relations by focusing on the people most likely to become involved in violent crime.

Civil liberties groups take a dim view of the strategy, questioning its legality and efficacy, and asserting that it may actually worsen the rapport between the police and civilians.

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In Chicago, the police have developed a “heat list” of 400 people who are considered far more likely than the average person to be involved in violent crime. Factors in compiling that list included their criminal records, social circles and gang connections. Also a factor was whether they had been victims of an assault or a shooting.

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In the year since its program has been fully in place, Kansas City has had a significant decrease in homicides. The city had averaged 114 homicides a year over a four-and-a-half-decade period through 2013. And the number of murders hovered over 100 in the roughly five years before NoVA’s inception. But murders plummeted to 80 last year, a 20 percent drop from 2013. While assaults with guns also decreased last year, overall assaults increased.

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Call-ins are central to the program. The authorities invite about 120 of the group leaders they have identified (25 to 40 usually show up) to hear from a range of officials, including the local and federal prosecutors, the police chief and the mayor.

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Mr. Brown has come to see some benefit in the program. NoVA officials have helped him find housing, he said, and pushed him to get a job–he now works as a delivery driver for Back Porch Bar-B-Q. The authorities connected him with a program to help him pay child support–he has four children ranging from 4 months to 7 years. And he works with young people to help keep them out of trouble.

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