Posted in Police on December 30, 2016
In the film Minority Report, Tom Cruise plays a police officer in a futuristic society that’s eliminated crime by using psychic predictions to arrest people before they commit an illegal act. The movie came out in 2002 and seemed to portray a future very distant from our own time. New technology rolled out by one police department in Fresno, California, seems like it may make a Minority Report future a bit more realistic.
The Fresno Police Department recently started using new software for police work. The software is largely based on enormous amounts of data that encompass everything from criminal histories to social media news feeds. It assesses all this data and determines the likelihood of a particular person to commit a crime and whether the police should keep a closer watch on them.
You read that right – this software identifies people police should watch before they’ve committed any crime.
According to a recent article in The Washington Post, the Fresno PD’s new system – called Beware – is one of the first such programs. It represents a data-driven approach to law enforcement that seems like it might be more suited to the financial sector, though it clearly has some benefits.
In an example cited in the Post article, a police officer ran data on a suspect as officers responded to a 911 call where he was threatening his ex-girlfriend. The data showed that the suspect had a high “threat level,” meaning officers should be prepared for him to be violent when they arrived on the scene. Proponents of the system assert that it will help make policing more proactive and less reactive, ideally preventing crimes and cutting down on violence.
That’s certainly true, but the Beware program and others like it do have critics. Many worry that people who haven’t done anything wrong could be accused of crimes they didn’t commit if they’re confused with another suspect. Once the courts wrongfully imprison someone, proving innocence becomes much more of a challenge – although programs such as the Innocence Project, which uses DNA and other forensic evidence to help overturn wrongful convictions, have had some success.
Beware is the brain child of Intrado, a security company that offers a variety of products and services for law enforcement and police departments, such as 911 telecommunications, location technology, and management of big data. The program does more than simply predict someone’s likelihood of committing a crime. It works behind the scenes in the event of a 911 call to provide officers with real-time information about a suspect, including arrest records, car registrations, social media posts, property records, and more.
Intrado’s online brochure states that the software’s goal is to help police respond proactively in potentially dangerous situations. Critics of Beware caution against over reliance on such a program because of the chances that the software will create false negatives in its quest to make policing more proactive.
That certainly seems to be a valid concern at a time when police departments are coming under increasing scrutiny over shootings of unarmed suspects. Many worry that programs such as Beware could actually increase these violent incidents. At a Fresno city council meeting intended to address these concerns, Beware calculated the address of one councilman as a demonstration. Although the councilman came up green – little to no threat – his home came up yellow. He and others voiced concern that police would be empowered by the data to treat anyone in that building as a possible threat, increasing the likelihood of a possible shooting or injuring an innocent person.
For better or for worse, programs like Beware seem to be gaining popularity with police departments around the country. We may be seeing more of them in the near future.