Pre-Crime Moving from from Science Fiction to Reality

Did you ever see the movie “Minority Report”? Based on a 1956 short story by Philip K. Dick, the film depicts a world in which psychic visions allow police to arrest criminals before they actually commit a crime. The ethics of punishing someone for something they haven’t but will do are explored in some depth, but ultimately the program collapses due to unreliability, not morality.

Well, reality has caught up with fiction, and police in Chicago, while not psychic, are using statistical data to identify, observe, and contact, people who have committed no crimes, on the assumption that they will do something wrong in the future. It’s called “predictive policing” and it’s terrifying.

It started last year with the implementation of Special Order S10-06, going under the friendly acronym T.R.A.P. (Targeted Repeat-Offender Apprehension and Prosecution Program). The purpose of the order is defined as follows:

The criminal activities of street gangs pose a substantial threat to the safety and quality of life of the residents of Chicago. Offenders have been identified because of their criminal history, propensity for violence, and the involvement in narcotics distribution. The primary goal of T.R.A.P. is focused on enhanced prosecution to detain, convict, and incarcerate these offenders before they commit further crimes of violence.

Suspects are identified based on whether they have been arrested before, have been involved with a gang or with drug dealing, “propensity for violence” (whatever that means) and even whether they have suffered gunshot wounds.

This has grown out of an older program called the Heat List, which previously identified potentially dangerous suspects based on mysterious criteria, some of whom were given stern warnings to watch their behavior. For example, Robert McDaniel, a 22-year-old high school dropout with no record of violent behavior and no felony convictions, was visited by the police and warned that if he stepped out of line, the consequences would be severe. The threat refers to “enhanced prosecution” — the technique police use to go after people on the Heat List for even minor offenses.

The Heat List has now evolved into the Strategic Suspect List, but the technique is essentially the same, although the language of Special Order s10-06 leaves little doubt as to what police could now do to suspects if they so desired. Chicago police have a history of detaining suspects in legally questionable ways, so there is plenty of reason to worry about the potential for abuse.

The fact that certain people are being singled out for watching without warrants and based on a set of criteria largely opaque to the public is a serious privacy concern, and raises issues of racial profiling as well.

But the most troubling thing about this program is that it groups people into types based on their history, and assumes that the past behavior will always predict future behavior. In other words, a person is regarded as a “criminal,” not as an individual who has committed a criminal offense, and that label sticks with them for life.

It has also been reported that the data collected for predictive policing is being used to rank people based on a “citizen threat score” based on how likely we supposedly are to commit a crime. Right now, it’s unclear what these rankings are being used for, but it’s easy to imagine the potential for abuse. In China, a similar system of citizen scores is already being used to enforce loyalty to the government and punish political dissent.

And the implications don’t stop there. Research currently being done at the University of Pennsylvania is aimed at finding out whether data can be used to predict whether young children will grow up to be criminals, in order that police might take preemptive action. Predictive policing should be worrying to anyone who cares about Americans’ constitutional guarantees of due process.

This article originally appeared on Conservative Review.

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Free the People publishes opinion-based articles from contributing writers. The opinions and ideas expressed do not always reflect the opinions and ideas that Free the People endorses. We believe in free speech, and in providing a platform for open dialog. Feel free to leave a comment!

Logan Albright

Logan Albright is the Head Writer and Sound Engineer at Free the People. He is the author of Conform or Be Cast Out: The (Literal) Demonization of Nonconformists and Our Servants, Our Masters: How Control Masquerades as Assistance.

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