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Tech and Policy for Predictive Policing

A debate regarding policing procedures has been fervently raging for years now. For many, the concept of predictive policing may seem like a new-age solution to an old-world problem of crime.

However, especially given the recent incidents involving excessive force and police shootings, we should exercise caution when considering predictive policing programs.

Predictive policing programs, while well intentioned, fail to consider the psychological ramifications of telling a police officer that a certain area is more likely to be a hotspot for violent crime.

The issue at hand is how police officers respond when they believe they are making contact with credible threats.

There have been repeated incidents wherein police have responded to what they believe to be credible threats, only for the situation to prove deadly for unarmed and unthreatening citizens.

Put simply, the belief that you are going to engage an individual who may pose a substantial threat to your life will likely drastically change the way in which you interact with that individual.

So, what needs to be done from a policy and technological perspective if we are to implement these predictive policing systems, as to ensure the safety of officers and citizens alike?

Policy to protect

One angle would be to consider de-biasing techniques to change any sort of implicit judgments that may factor into the shooting of unarmed citizens. One strategy used for de-biasing has been to acknowledge that one has inherent biases, to attend to when these biases arise and then take deliberate efforts to reframe the thought processes associated with the bias.

The laboratory research on these implicit biases suggests that these and other de-biasing techniques, may not actually be effective.

What’s more, they might not even be needed as the research on implicit biases in police officers (or on the decision to shoot) is mixed at best. However, this work has been done with racial biases rather than overarching biases like those that may arise from predictive policing.

A complementary approach would be to standardize the fundamentals of police training and the standard operating procedures across the country. Many have advocated for training in hand-to-hand grappling arts like Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. Such training may prove to be beneficial in instances similar to those of Alton Sterling, the Louisiana man who was shot while two officers tried to subdue him on the ground.

Still, the skills acquired would be beneficial in the moment where there is direct physical contact with a suspect, and many shootings of unarmed suspects occur well before.

What about a tech solution?

An alternative method would be to consider technological advancements that could help prevent these sorts of tragedies.

For example, Alternative Ballistics created an accessory for handguns that affixes to the slide and “catches” the first bullet, using that momentum to propel a non-lethal metal ball towards a target.

The device has the added advantage of being a single-shot; if a subsequent escalation of force was necessary, following shots would be normal and unobstructed therefore posing no additional risk to the officer.

While this is a creative solution that may save lives, it does not address the aforementioned core issue inherent in predictive policing.

The more we know

From a psychological and human factors perspective, work must be done to determine the best ways for these predictive policing programs to convey information so as to minimize the risks of that initial information biasing the interactions between a suspect and an officer.

Additionally, development of technologies that would assist officers in their interactions with suspects should be considered. For example, the ever-evolving object-identification capabilities of computers could be incorporated into wearable technology that would assist officers in determining whether they are seeing guns, or, for example, vape pens being pointed at them.

These ideas are simplistic and rudimentary. However, technology and policy must consider the ramifications of predictive policing measures, and where issues arise, opportunities exist.

Herein lies the beauty of this opportunity: with interdisciplinary collaboration, we can find a solution that saves lives.

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