Predictive Policing in Chicago: Curbing Violent Crime Intelligently

79aaa5031c08291c62c195e3bbb734c1At first blush, the idea of predictive policing sounds a lot like something out of the movie Minority Report. In order to target their policing efforts, the Chicago Police Department uses a high-tech database of persons, which it refers to as the Strategic Subject List, who are most likely to be shot or to shoot someone. With murder rate on the rise, up 50% from last year, and an ever-increasing number of shooting victims, the department has ramped up its raids and is actively using this database to prevent violent crime. In the first half of 2016, there were 1934 shooting victims and 326 homicide victims in Chicago. From January 1 to December 31 of 2015, these figures were 2988 and 490, respectively. See Chicago Tribune articles for more. Chicago homicides; Chicago shootings.

The “list” contains a list of persons who are most likely to be shot soon or to shoot someone based on a computer algorithm that calculates a score based on arrests, shootings, affiliations with gang members and other variables. It ranks each person based on their score; the higher one’s score, the higher the probability he or she may be a victim or perpetrator of gun violence.  The algorithm does not use race, ethnicity, gender, or geography as a factor.

In the last two months, this list has helped the police crack down on deeply entrenched drug rings, particularly in Uptown and East Garfield Park. According to Chief Anthony Riccio, the head of the Department’s Organized Crime Division, the drug operations were run by local street gangs, and the proceeds from drug sales went to buying guns and funding other criminal acts by the gangs. In the last week of April, 70 people were arrested in East Garfield. Of the 70 people, 54 were charged with felony narcotics delivery or possession; nearly all of them – 49 out of 54 – were on the Department’s Strategic Subjects List. An additional 16 people were arrested in drug raids in Uptown during the same time period. Police targeted the drug rings that were selling heroin laced with fentanyl, which has been causing fatal overdoses in Chicago and its suburbs.   

The police continued their aggressive raids in May, during which they arrested 140 people for drug-related crimes; 117 of these people were on the list and 95 of them were “documented gang members.” Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson said: “We are targeting the correct individuals.  We just need our judicial partners and our state legislators to hold these people accountable.”

Targeting these gangs and eliminating their funding source is crucial to curbing gun violence, which has been a serious issue in Chicago for years. According to Superintendent Johnson, about 1400 people are responsible for much of the violence in Chicago, which has 2.7 million people. All 1400 are on the department’s Strategic Subject List. Another prong of the targeted policing by the department includes home visits from police and social workers to those on the list.  People who are ranked high on the department’s list receive a visit from the police and social workers who offer help for those who want to leave their lifestyle.

Reactions to the use of such a list to allocate resources of the department and to predict and prevent further crime has been mixed. Supporters of the list say its use can reduce gun violence, but critics say the lack of transparency about the algorithm implicates potential breaches to civil liberties. While drug raids in the last two months demonstrate that the list is somewhat effective in increasing accuracy in policing, its full efficacy remains in doubt, as the number of homicide and shooting victims keep rising.

Predictive policing is a growing trend across the country. The strategy of using big data to predict and prevent crime is employed by dozens of police departments, including Los Angeles, New York, and Miami, as well as district attorney’s offices in Manhattan and Philadelphia. See New York Times for more information on similar programs.  One hopes that the Chicago Police Department can continue to improve its algorithms, perhaps through incorporation of studies on social networks of violence, so they can prevent gun violence more effectively.   

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(photo courtesy of Dodgerton Skillhaus)

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