by Paul Bowers
The Charleston Police Department has applied for a nearly $500,000 grant from the Department of Justice to cover the cost of implementing a predictive policing program. The computer-assisted policing suite, sold by IBM, uses historic crime data to create probability models that can help predict where crimes will occur.
The department announced in June 2012 that it would be launching a pilot program to test the efficacy of IBM's Crime Prediction and Prevention software, specifically focusing on how well it could predict a single type of crime, armed robberies. "All across the country, if you've heard about predictive policing, that's the new model of policing," Police Chief Greg Mullen said at the time. "They're actually starting to look at data and trying to not just react to crime and where it's happening, but actually take a lot of different types of information and predict in the future where that crime might occur ... to be preventive instead of reactive."
For the trial run, the department put three years' worth of geographical data on armed robberies into the system and then spent three months looking at how well the program's predictions matched up with reality. "What we wanted to do is see if it actually worked first," Mullen says. "You wouldn't want to invest all that money in something that you're not sure whether it's going to give you a benefit."
The results? "The accuracy rate was very good in terms of where the models said the robberies would take place and where the robberies actually took place," Mullen says.
The department has put in an application for a $499,188 nonrecurring grant from the Department of Justice, and Mullen says he expects to hear an answer from the DOJ by the end of October. Police spokesman Charles Francis says the grant would cover initial setup and support of the software "for the first several years." After the initial grant runs out, Francis says the department would have to find funding to continue the program. Francis was not able to provide an estimate for future costs of the program.
Francis says the program would initially be used to predict armed robberies, but he adds, "Once it's up and running, we can venture out to other crimes."
IBM's predictive policing suite, which has earned some (not quite accurate) comparisons to the psychic crime-forecasting dystopia of Minority Report, has also raised some concerns with justice scholars and civil liberties groups including the American Civil Liberties Union of South Carolina. In a City Paper cover story on the topic last year, S.C. ACLU President Victoria Middleton said, "It can create problems in the targeted communities when trust is eroded. That would definitely be counterproductive if the goal is to reduce and prevent and solve crimes."