Police are Crunching Data to Stop Murders Before They Happen
Civil rights groups say that tactic raises serious privacy questions.
Kansas City had a murder problem.
For the past decade it’s violent crime rate had made it one of the top ten dangerous cities in America.
Then three years ago, city officials decided to try a strategy being used by a growing number of police departments across the country: smart policing. The idea is to sift through huge amounts of data to help prevent crime.
Police and researchers use computers to figure out who is most likely to commit murders, robberies and rapes. Software also looks through law enforcement files to uncover who those high-risk individuals know so police can pressure the entire group to steer clear of violence.
“This is not about putting more people in prison, it’s about putting the right people in prison,” said Capt. Joe McHale of the Kansas City Police Department.
The program, described by McHale as a success, is a huge shift from the traditional police work of walking a neighborhood beat and building personal contacts. By using technology, police can connect information within police reports that would otherwise go unnoticed and learn where to focus their attention.
But Kansas City’s approach also raises questions by people who fear that it could violate privacy. They also ask whether police are abusing their powers by putting residents under the microscope, including innocent people and those who are just minor offenders.
The program officially launched in January 2013, but was conceived a few months earlier, when city officials were inspired by smart policing in other cities. The police department partnered with the University of Missouri in Kansas City to learn how to analyze their data.
“The police were unaware of who keeps getting picked up,” said Ken Novak, a criminology professor at the university who is helping with the program. “The first component of network analysis was looking at the police department’s own records.”
The plan Kansas City ultimately decided on goes a step further than merely data analysis. It also includes a carrot and stick approach to combating crime.