Local Law Enforcement

Predictive policing is ‘wave of the future,’ NY commissioner says

New York City Police Commissioner William Bratton (left), standing on stage with Mayor Bill de Blasio during a New York Police Academy graduation ceremony in December, is a key figure at the heart of predictive policing, a technology used by an increasing number of law enforcement agencies across the U.S. Credit: John Minchillo/Associated Press file

Predictive policing, an unproven and controversial data-mining method intended to anticipate the location and participants or victims in future crimes, is now an integral part of the largest police department in the United States. During a recent panel, New York City Police Commissioner William Bratton declared that predictive policing “is the wave of the future,” and that “the ‘Minority Report’ of 2002 is the reality of today.”

Bratton’s remarks, which are the most candid he has been about the department’s use of data mining, came during a discussion about Big Data, hosted by The New York Times, with editor Charles Duhigg and former Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Margaret Hamburg.

“There are no secrets. There are none. If two people share a piece of information, it is no longer secret,” Bratton said in response to a question by Duhigg regarding the risks of data collection.

Earlier this month, the New York City Police Department announced that it would begin a two-year pilot program using predictive policing software called HunchLab, which is produced by Philadelphia firm Azavea and currently used by the Miami Police Department.

New York police are “data mining huge amounts of information and developing algorithms that will effectively mine that data in many ways the human brain cannot,” said Bratton, referring to the department’s trawling of social media and crime data, as well as other information gathered by city agencies, to predict where public safety threats could arise. The department’s Intelligence Division and anti-gang units already monitor social media accounts of people suspected of criminal activity, as well as those considered at risk of falling victim to violent crime.

Bratton is a key figure at the heart of predictive policing, a technology still in its infancy and questionable in its efficacy but used by an increasing number of law enforcement agencies across the country. During his term as Los Angeles police chief from 2002 to 2009, Bratton fostered a collaboration between the Police Department and UCLA’s P. Jeffrey Brantingham to adapt algorithms that the anthropology professor had developed for the Pentagon to predict insurgent activity and battlefield casualties to urban crime forecasting. The resulting technology is still used by the department, and Brantingham has monetized the software through PredPol Inc., which he helped found. PredPol has sold its software to dozens of police departments around the world.

Hamburg, the former FDA commissioner, drew parallels between the struggle health officials have in determining the balance between civil liberties and the public good through their own data collection, and similar challenges faced by law enforcement agencies.

“When they all align, terrific, but there are often tensions,” she said, referring to the collection of personal medical information on a wide scale by public health agencies. Such tensions, Hamburg said, include the use of highly personal medical information for public research and concurrent incursions on privacy, as well as fears of security breaches, identity theft and improper use of this data by the government.

There are significant civil liberties concerns that go hand in hand with predictive policing and data mining, Bratton conceded. However, the New York City police commissioner said, citizens should trust his department to not abuse its power and to remain within the bounds of the law.

“But there is a controlling element in law enforcement, and that’s the law,” he said.

Bratton’s remarks dovetail with statements made last month by Lawrence Byrne, the department’s deputy commissioner for legal affairs, who argued that the public safety benefits of data mining and surveillance tools such as body cameras, license-plate readers and closed-circuit TV outweighed concerns over potential civil liberties violations.

Despite Bratton’s assertions that the department’s use of predictive policing and other surveillance technology abides by the law, it repeatedly has found itself in hot water in recent years over its monitoring of Muslim communities in New York City and elsewhere and spying on political activists during and since the 2004 Republican National Convention, despite a 1985 consent decree designed to restrict the department’s intelligence-gathering efforts to curb past abuses.

While in Los Angeles, Bratton expanded the Police Department’s use of networked closed-circuit TV cameras, gunshot detectors and license-plate readers; established the city’s Real-Time Analysis and Critical Response Division to monitor data and crime reports around the clock; and was rebuffed on a controversial effort to map the city’s Muslim population as part of a counterterrorism initiative against extremism.

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