The Department of Pre-Crime, Los Angeles Style

In late May, I put up a post, HERE, the title of which referred to the Department of Pre-Crime, a feature of the 2002 Tom Cruise movie “Minority Report”.  My post was really about the executive orders that I anticipate from President Obama, but journalist Nate Berg of the Guardian newspaper has now gone to the Minority Report well again in his recent article about the growing use of computers by the Los Angeles Police Department in trying to predict when and where crimes will next occur in order to improve the efficiency of their dispatchers.  Some excerpts:

The Los Angeles Police Department, like many urban police forces today, is both heavily armed and thoroughly computerised.  The Real-Time Analysis and Critical Response Division in downtown LA is its central processor.  Rows of crime analysts and technologists sit before a wall covered in video screens stretching more than 10 metres wide.  Multiple news broadcasts are playing simultaneously, and a real-time earthquake map is tracking the region’s seismic activity.  Half-a-dozen security cameras are focused on the Hollywood sign, the city’s icon.  In the centre of this video menagerie is an oversized satellite map showing some of the most recent arrests made across the city – a couple of burglaries, a few assaults, a shooting.


The algorithm at play is performing what’s commonly referred to as predictive policing.  Using years – and sometimes decades – worth of crime reports, the algorithm analyses the data to identify areas with high probabilities for certain types of crime, placing little red boxes on maps of the city that are streamed into patrol cars.  “Burglars tend to be territorial, so once they find a neighbourhood where they get good stuff, they come back again and again,” Romero says.  “And that assists the algorithm in placing the boxes.”


Predictive policing is just one tool in this new, tech-enhanced and data-fortified era of fighting and preventing crime.  As the ability to collect, store and analyse data becomes cheaper and easier, law enforcement agencies all over the world are adopting techniques that harness the potential of technology to provide more and better information.  But while these new tools have been welcomed by law enforcement agencies, they’re raising concerns about privacy, surveillance and how much power should be given over to computer algorithms.

And rightly so.  One of the many potential drawbacks to this automation is that it may lead to self-fullfilling prophecies and over-reaching assumptions on the part of the police.  But overall, it could be a good thing, so we should keep an open mind until more experience is gained.

To view the full article, click HERE.