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Editorial Advisory Board: Predictive policing problems

Baltimore Police Commissioner Darryl D. De Sousa sat down with the Editorial Advisory Board recently to discuss one of his plans for addressing the city’s violent crime crisis: deploying predictive policing strategies and software to disrupt and deter criminal conduct.

A 30-year veteran of the BPD, De Sousa worked his way through the uniformed ranks and into leadership, serving as commander of the patrol division and subsequently deputy commissioner under his predecessor, Kevin Davis. On the streets, he has already instituted changes in officer deployment strategy and is seeing some shortterm benefit. This summer, Baltimore will introduce a predictive policing software that uses algorithms that predict when and where crime events are likely to occur.

This yet-to-be-selected software, licensed for use by the BPD, will be stored at locations referred to as “nerve centers” and uses data such as bus routes, weather, school dismissals and other information to forecast when and where crimes will occur and even who might be the victim and who might be the perpetrator.  Based on the algorithmic analysis, police officers are then dispatched to the target area to disrupt and, hopefully, prevent crime from occurring.

We asked De Sousa whether his predictive policing program would be another “secretive” surveillance program BPD seems to deploy every few years, such as “Stingray” cellphone tracking and the spy plane. De Sousa was quick to stress he did not want members of the community to feel like they were secretly being surveilled. His plan is to choose an effective software program that is also transparent to the community, meaning the data will be used for legitimate, preemptive law enforcement actions and the data will be made available outside the department to improve inter-agency communication of public safety threats.

The use of this software, however, is hardly without controversy. Some question how its use will impact the poor and minorities and whether it will adversely affect constitutional rights. The commissioner will need to establish its use is transparent if he wants to convince residents the software will not violate civil rights. This is a big task, because, historically, Baltimore police have routinely and consistently engaged in unlawful stops and excessive force in minority neighborhoods.  Additionally, use of this software raises concerns its application will occur in the poorest neighborhoods, and police expecting trouble would be more likely to arrest innocent bystanders caught in the fray.

When software development, anthropology and constitutional rights find themselves in the same mix, the police, and those who oversee their activities, need to assure that science does not ride roughshod over constitutional rights, and that how and why this software works is not shrouded in secrecy. De Sousa provided us assurances of his desire or intent to create transparency. We hope it occurs because it is needed.

Editorial Advisory Board members Wesley D. Blakeslee and Arthur F. Fergenson did not participate in this opinion.

The Daily Record Editorial Advisory Board is composed of members of the legal profession who serve voluntarily and are independent of The Daily Record. Through their ongoing exchange of views, members of the Board attempt to develop consensus on issues of importance to the Bench, Bar and public. When their minds meet, unsigned opinions will result. When they differ, majority views and signed rebuttals will appear. Members of the community are invited to contribute letters to the editor and/or columns about opinions expressed by the Editorial Advisory Board.

Find out more about the members of the Editorial Advisory Board.