In the 2002 science-fiction movie “Minority Report,” suspects are apprehended based on what crimes it is determined they will commit. The award-winning film starred Tom Cruise and was directed by Steven Spielberg. It is probable that author Philip K. Dick, who wrote the dark tale on which the movie was based, had foreknowledge of what was already afoot in various police agencies.

In the thriller, Pre-Crime Unit Capt. John Anderson is on the run from police because the mutant pre-cog psychics used by his unit predict that he will murder a man in the next 36 hours.

Now comes predictive policing. The Los Angeles Police Department recently reported that in a randomized controlled trial that one such predictive policing program reduced property crimes by 13 percent in precincts where it has been implemented, compared to a slight overall increase in those crimes in the rest of the city.

“We have prevented hundreds and hundreds of people coming home and seeing their homes robbed,” LAPD Capt. Sean Malinowski told the Associated Press. Malinowski is the commanding officer of the department’s Real-time Analysis and Critical Response program and the principal investigator of the Los Angeles Predictive Policing Planning Project. The LAPD is now rolling out the program to more of the city.

It is a relatively new program called PredPol that has been devised by a team of researchers led by UCLA anthropologist Jeffrey Brantingham. Other cities have been using predictive crime analytics programs by IBM for several years, but PredPol’s algorithm was able to predict Los Angeles crime time and location (hot spots) with twice the accuracy of trained crime analysts.

Predictive policing is currently applied to forecasting the likelihood of burglaries, auto theft and theft of items from autos. Crunching weighted crime data from the past three years, the PredPol algorithm produces a daily list of hot spot boxes measuring 500 by 500 feet, along with times when the crimes are most likely to take place. Between responding to specific calls for assistance from the public, officers are directed to go into the boxes identified by the program. The idea is not to make arrests but to disrupt lawbreaking before it occurs.

In the movie “Minority Report,” the pre-cog psychics were able to point out suspects even before they became suspects. Comparatively speaking, predictive policing software is far more inferior. However, predictive policing is being used to identify where the next crime will likely occur.

More recently, the hit CBS television series, “Person of Interest,” uses a secret all-seeing computer surveillance system developed by a reclusive billionaire genius for the government that can predict that a specific person will be involved in a violent crime. Like the “Minority Report,” such predictions are pure fiction. However, real-world researchers are claiming to have developed computer programs that can predict, not who will commit a crime, but at what locations they are likely to occur.

Welcome to the brave new world of predictive policing.

How does predictive policing work to reduce property crimes? Crime does not randomly disperse throughout cities. For example, research has shown that half the crimes in Seattle occur on 4.5 percent of that city’s streets. Just over 3 percent of street addresses and intersections generated half the crimes in Minneapolis, and 8 percent of street blocks accounted for 66 percent of robberies in Boston.

Researchers have developed two theories for why some areas are subject to higher rates of crime–the Near Repeat Theory and Risk Terrain Modeling. The Near Repeat Theory hypothesizes that once a particular location has been hit by a crime it is more likely nearby locations will be hit, too.

For example, studies have shown that burglaries are contagious. One study found that “houses within 200 meters of a burgled home were at an elevated risk of burglary for a period of at least two weeks.” Why? Possibly because a successful burglary advertises similar vulnerabilities in other properties in a neighborhood.

In June, anthropologist Brantingham and his colleagues published a study that applied Lotka-Volterra equations used by biologists for decades to determine the hunting ranges of animals in the wild to map the territories of street gangs. Their model predicted that 59 percent of gang crimes would occur within two blocks of a border between two gangs and 87.5 percent would occur within about three blocks. When the researchers mapped more than 500 crimes attributed to 13 gangs in a specific area of Los Angeles, they found that, in fact, 58 percent and 83 percent occurred within two blocks and three blocks of a border, respectively.

“You would think that we’re more complicated than other animals, so a model this simplistic shouldn’t work, but I was surprised that it fit as well as it did,” said study co-author Martin Short, an assistant adjunct professor of mathematics at UCLA in the magazine Wired UK. This research may eventually be used to identify zones to be more intensively patrolled by police with the goal of disrupting assaults and murders perpetrated by gangs.

How might predictive policing interfere with the Constitution’s Fourth Amendment guarantee that Americans are to be free of unreasonable searches and seizures? Andrew Guthrie Ferguson, a law professor at the University of the District of Columbia, notes in an article, “Predictive Policing: The Future of Reasonable Suspicion,” forthcoming in the Emory Law Journal, that police must have either “probable cause” to search or “reasonable suspicion” to seize an individual.

Such determinations are actually predictions by law-enforcement officials about the likelihood they will find evidence of a crime when they search a premise or detain a suspect. Can computer programs improve these predictions and thus help police identify would-be perpetrators while excluding the innocent?

To find analogies to how predictive policing might affect Fourth Amendment protections, Ferguson reviewed various Fourth Amendment court cases involving anonymous tips, informant tips, profiling, and high-crime-area designations. Tips refer to the activities of particular individuals. Predictive policing forecasts do not. Consequently, Ferguson argues, “Because predictive policing does not provide personal knowledge about an ongoing crime, or particularized identification of the suspect involved, it cannot support the weight of reasonable suspicion.”

On the other hand, if a specific area has been identified by the computer program as being at higher risk for an outbreak of, say, burglaries, then courts would likely accept reasonable suspicion arguments by police who had stopped a suspect in that area fitting a burglar profile–for example, carrying duffel bags, tools, ropes, gloves in warm weather, etc. Ferguson concludes that predictive policing forecasts alone will not constitute sufficient information to justify reasonable suspicion or probable cause, but instead will be seen by courts as a plus factor in making such determinations.

Ferguson also expressed the hope that the advent of predictive policing might “cause courts to rethink the current overly flexible approach to reasonable suspicion.” One possible liberty-enhancing benefit from predictive policing might be that by focusing law-enforcement attention on specific city blocks that innocent citizens living in higher crime neighborhoods (often inhabited by members of ethnic minorities) may experience less intrusive police contact.”

There are other futuristic forms of policing being used. Let’s say you’re driving along on your way from work and a police cruiser pulls up behind you for a few minutes before turning off on another street. But during that time a photographic device has snapped your car’s license plate and recorded its location.

The technology is called Automated License Plate Recognition devices (ALPR), and it is an invention first used in the United Kingdom in 1976. Twenty-two law enforcement agencies in Los Angeles County have equipped their police cruisers with the electronic eye units capable of recording license plate numbers on vehicles traveling up to 80 mph.

“Every vehicle within view of the electronic eye is recorded, which is a great tool,” says Sheriff’s Deputy Chad Davis, “since the Supreme Court’s ban on cell phone GPS tracking and the requirement that peace officers must get a warrant to install a GPS on a suspect’s car.

“It’s like driving a U-2 spy plane down the highway,” says Davis. “Automatic License Plate Recognition devices operate automatically without any effort of peace officers.” Davis pointed to the device and explained that they are mounted atop police cruisers but some agencies have rear unit recording devices.

Spokesperson Tama McWhinney of Motorola Media, a major supplier of ALPR, explained how databanks of scanned plates will add to ensuring public safety by recording the movement of every vehicle peace officers encounter.

“If a theft takes place or a rape in a certain area, we may be able to cross-reference any minute amount of data witnesses may have with data points we may have stored from previous plate scanning and solve a crime. This type of cross reference was used to solve a church burglary in New Orleans two weeks ago and a homicide in Long Beach.”

The Los Angeles police and sheriff’s departments collect the largest amount of automatic license plate recognition data in the United States. A massive database bank already exists, recordings that show the history of movements of millions of drivers in Southern California. Automobiles are given a value of one data point. Each data point represents a car and the exact location and time it was at a certain location.

The total amount of data points recorded by Southern California agencies may be in the range of around 160 million. It is estimated by the California Highway Patrol that 22 license plate scans exist on average for one of each of the 7,014,131 Los Angeles County vehicles currently registered. Scannings by ALPR are a chance encounter, and being an automatic process void of human direction, some cars can be scanned numerous times while others may never be scanned.
On the other hand, there are racial profiling concerns.

Attorney, Debbie Hines, a former prosecutor and legal/political commentator for CNN, NPR, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and USA Today, believes such technology might be used in an abusive way.

Before slavery ended, says Hines, freed Black persons needed to carry papers to prove their freedom or they risked being placed back in slavery. Although primitive, it was racial profiling. Since the end of slavery Blacks no longer need paper to prove their freedom. However, they are still subject to racial profiling based solely on their race.

Racial profiling is a form of discrimination by which persons, usually in law enforcement, use a person’s race or cultural background as the primary reason to suspect that the individual has broken the law. The term “driving while black” arose from such a police practice, as many officers frequently pull over African Americans for no reason other than their race and the stereotypes linked to it.

As government law-enforcement agencies stockpile and embrace enough new technology to make Batman jealous, such as futuristic software capable of predicting crime–miniature drones capable of spying on an individual while flying and audio software capable of administering a lie detector test over the phone by monitoring voice, may give African and Hispanic Americans more cause to be concerned about more advanced forms of racial profiling. Will the development of this equipment be used to stifle freedoms or will it simply advance the practice of racial profiling as opposed to stifling crime in the ghettos and barrios where this technology will be more than likely deployed?

Law Professor Ferguson points out several issues ALPR may have in regards to racial profiling and basic civil rights. If a police investigator wants to see where a car has been in the past, he/she punches in the plate number and at the officer’s fingertips would be data that could lead to enhanced racial profiling if that data is used with encounters of people of color. If their vehicle has been scanned, a map will show where it was scanned and what time it was scanned. Or plug in an address and get a list of every car captured by any ALPR device in that area. Investigators need neither a warrant nor probable cause to perform this data retrieval. Ferguson goes on to describe how different agencies are archiving and retaining data.

The Associated Press reported in August 2011 that New York Police Department cars and license-plate tracking equipment purchased with federal HIDTA (High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area) funds were used to spy on Muslims at mosques, and to track the license plate numbers of worshipers. Police in unmarked cars outfitted with electronic license plate readers would drive down the street and automatically catalog the plates of everyone parked near the mosque, amassing a covert database that would be distributed among officers and used to profile Muslims in public.

In 2005, when ALPR made its debut in Southern California, police agencies generally threw out all of the unneeded information that wasn’t tied to a stolen or otherwise wanted vehicle. Now there’s a lot of cheap digital storage space, so LAPD holds all of its data for five years, Long Beach for two, the sheriff’s department for two.

But Sheriff’s Sgt. John Gaw says, “I’d keep it indefinitely if I could,” according to an interview in last month’s issue of the Los Angeles Weekly.

German-born philosopher Johnas Hans once said, “In technology, we speak of ethics in two contexts: one is whether the pace of technological innovation is benefiting the humankind or not, the other is either severely empowering people while choking others for the same.”