“Patriotism is supporting your country all the time, and your government when it deserves it.” - Mark Twain
by Michael Sarko
- The Capitol Hill Times -
Today, there are police on patrol in the East Precinct keeping a close watch for property crime, more so in some places than others. This special focus isn’t the result of a call, an order, or a hunch. Rather, it comes from a data model suggesting that the next property crime in the precinct is more likely to happen in certain places. The patrol officers hope their simple presence dissuades a potential criminal from acting, but if a thief still steals or a vandal still tags a wall, the police want to be close enough to respond quickly. This is Predictive Policing software at street-level and it’s about to become the way Seattle’s cops operate every day in every precinct.
Predictive Policing is another technology-aided method of law enforcement Seattle and many other cities have been adopting in recent years. It falls under the umbrella of intelligence-led policing, or ILP, that has become ever more the standard for cops in the U.S., U.K., and other countries since the start of the 21st century. ILP itself is an outgrowth of the community-focused policing methods that grew to prominence in the 1990s, as outlined in a 2009 article by Charlie Beck, then the Chief of Detectives and now the Chief of Police for the Los Angeles Police Department.
Community-focused policing is how the Seattle Police Department created its “hot spots” system, using a mix of crime data and community concern to identify certain areas of the city that suffer from a high density and frequency of crime. The SPD has used hot spot identification to strategically deploy a force that has been stretched increasingly thin as Seattle’s population has grown in the midst of an economic recession that strains the department’s budget and makes hiring additional officers difficult. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Seattle’s population has risen by approximately 100,000 people in the past 20 years. Though the SPD has grown significantly in the past decade, budgetary concerns have prevented the department from hiring enough new officers to meet the rising demands of the population. In the most recent reports by the SPD, staff attrition is expected to match or exceed new hires over the next several years if budgets don’t recover. This is why the department is looking to technology to make its officers more effective.
The City of Seattle has already agreed to implement gunshot detection systems by ShotSpotter, a service that will cost the City just under $1 million over two years. The Predictive Policing software Mayor McGinn recently announced has been adopted by the SPD and was created by the University of California, Los Angeles in partnership with the LAPD. Over the past decade crime figures in Los Angeles have been on the decline and Chief Charlie Beck credits technology like Predictive Policing for the trend. He claims that the new software helps the LAPD address crimes “in the margins” of his own department’s hot spot system.
It should be noted that, as of this date, the LAPD has never applied Predictive Policing to violent crimes. The software has mostly been used to address property crime and especially car theft. The SPD is following suit, at least for now. Only deployed in the East and South precincts, and only for property crime, the City is expanding the program to all precincts and additional kinds of crime over the course of this year.
UCLA’s Predictive Policing software creates target zones that are as small as 500 feet by 500 feet based on a combination of past reports dating back five years. Officers then receive maps overlaid with data on these zones to encourage them to spend more time in them, especially during hours when the software predicts crime is most likely. Holistic data from the LAPD suggests that Predictive Policing does not increase the number of arrests but does have an overall effect on reducing the number of crimes that occur, making it predominantly a preventive system.
The actual amount of time officers are expected to spend in designated zones is approximately 20 minutes. Even this short period of patrol can be difficult to manage during high-volume times like weekend nights when officers often have a backlog of calls to address.
Predictive Policing software will be rolled out to every precinct in the Seattle Police Department starting in April. As with the testing phase in the East and South precincts, the initial application will focus on property crime, with other kinds of crime soon to follow. There is no word yet on whether the SPD will attempt to use the software to predict violent crime.