By Erin Sherbert
By Erin Sherbert
By Leif Haven
By Erin Sherbert
By Chris Roberts
By Kate Conger
By Brian Rinker
By Rachel Swan
Friend at the time was working as a crime analyst and public relations officer for the Santa Cruz Police Department. Coonerty, the former mayor of Santa Cruz (his father, Neal, was also mayor, and is currently a county supervisor), and Baskin, a Santa Cruz attorney from a prominent local family, pounced on the idea of predictive policing as a potential business. They enlisted an influential friend, Donnie Fowler.
Fowler, a San Francisco resident originally from Columbia, S.C., is a staunch Democrat who worked in low-level positions in the Clinton White House, and briefly for the Federal Communications Commission. He worked on the campaigns of Bill Clinton, Al Gore, Wesley Clark, John Kerry, and, most recently, Barack Obama. Fowler runs a lobbying group called Dogpatch Strategies, whose clients include Facebook and Stanford University. Fowler comes from a political family; his father, Donald Fowler, was national chairman of the Democratic National Committee from 1995 to 1997.
Mohler pulled his former UCLA advisor Brantingham back into the mix, and together they incorporated PredPol in January 2012. The new company quickly raised $1.3 million from angel investors and recruited members of Silicon Valley's elite. One of PredPol's advisers is Andreas Wigand, the former chief scientist at Amazon, and head of the Social Data Lab at Stanford University. Another PredPol advisor is Harsh Patel, formerly of In-Q-Tel, the CIA's venture capital firm.
On June 4, 2012, Wigand hosted a dinner to "showcase PredPol" and raise funds, according to an article in Forbes magazine. In addition to Wigand, PredPol boasts of the support of the former chief information officer of Autodesk, a former vice president at Plantronics, and a former eBay vice president. Fowler claimed in an e-mail to SFPD's Merritt that retired Gen. Wesley Clark is an adviser.
Shortly after forming PredPol, Friend left the Santa Cruz Police Department and successfully ran for county supervisor in Santa Cruz. Ryan Coonerty announced his intent to join Friend on the Santa Cruz Board of Supervisors in July of this year. Friend, Coonerty, and Fowler have served as PredPol's main lobbyists, approaching dozens of cities in an unusual sales effort. The statisticians Brantingham and Mohler have been very active in the sales effort too, giving presentations across the U.S. and lending PredPol an air of scientific authority before police customers and the press.
And that's where PredPol has been most successful: in its marketing algorithms. The company did not respond to interview requests for this story, but hundreds of records from more than a dozen cities tell a story of a company aggressively trying to expand its business.
PredPol distributes news articles about predictive policing's supposed success in L.A. to dozens of other police departments, implying that the company's software has been purchased and deployed by the LAPD. PredPol gave the mayor and city council of Columbia, S.C. — Fowler's hometown — a "confidential" briefing packet assembled by PredPol's Brantingham. Inside were slides and graphs illustrating L.A.'s supposedly successful use of predictive policing to reduce crime. In one graph, Brantingham compared year-over-year crime rates for two six-month spans. His graph shows that in November 2011 with the "rollout" of PredPol in L.A., crime dropped significantly compared to the prior year. He concludes that "successful rollouts in Los Angeles and Santa Cruz, California have seen reductions in crime of 12 percent and 27 percent respectively." Columbia purchased PredPol's software earlier this year for $37,000.
Swayed by the same claims, the city of Alhambra, just northeast of Los Angeles, purchased PredPol's software in 2012 for $27,500. The contract between Alhambra and PredPol includes numerous obligations requiring Alhambra to carry out marketing and promotion on PredPol's behalf. Alhambra's police and public officials must "provide testimonials, as requested by PredPol," and "provide referrals and facilitate introductions to other agencies who can utilize the PredPol tool." And that's just for starters.
Under the terms of the contract, Alhambra must also "host visitors from other agencies regarding PredPol," and even "engage in joint/integrated marketing," which PredPol then spells out in a detailed list of obligations that includes joint press conferences, training materials, web marketing, trade shows, conferences, and speaking engagements.
PredPol has offered its software at a 50 percent discount to many cities in order to get them to agree to shill for the company. In Salinas, PredPol slashed its $50,000 a year price tag in half on the condition that Salinas' police department "contribute to requested case studies, to be developed by PredPol, for use in its marketing."
The same sort of "case studies," developed by PredPol, led to an Aug. 15, 2011, New York Times article in which officers in Santa Cruz were depicted as having prevented auto burglaries thanks to the map's little red boxes. PredPol supposedly led the cops to a specific parking garage where they arrested two suspects. The Times quoted PredPol's executives and Santa Cruz cops, all of them praising the effectiveness of the software.
Since then, dozens of articles in national newspapers and magazines and local media have restated the same claims, often recycling quotes and statistics drawn directly from press releases written by PredPol for police departments. In Seattle, where PredPol signed a three-year contract, the company once again cut its list price, in this case by 36 percent, for a $135,000 agreement that pressures city leaders to do marketing for the company.
"Patrol officers are assigned to sit in computer-generated boxes produced by predictive policing software..."
This is very misleading. Refer to my explanation above about how the Koper Curve Principal is applied.
"In response to a public records request for contracts between L.A. and PredPol, the LAPD says no such agreements exist."
Perhaps the LAPD is being disingenuous if not outright just lying about this. In the previously mentioned video (http://vimeo.com/50315082) Mohler describes how the 6 month study couldn't have gone on longer because it required the LAPD crime analysts to generate a hot spot map on a daily basis rather than the usual weekly report. This was, apparently, much more time consuming that it took PredPol's software to generate daily prediction boxes based on the same data.
"...'In L.A. I heard that many officers were only patrolling the red boxes, not other areas,' says Merritt."
This doesn't make sense. Using the Koper Curve a single patrol can cover 8 different prediction boxes within a shift. The Foothill Division was generating only 20 prediction boxes total. 3 separate patrols that were dedicated to only these red boxes, could handle all of them. Even if the patrols spent 16 minutes per box that would mean they could each cover 6 per shift. Doesn't a division the size of S.F. have more than 3 or 4 patrols out per shift? What that may mean is that the LAPD was not implementing predictive policing correctly.
"Crockford believes that relying on for-profit companies to deliver effective crime-fighting solutions poses serious risks. 'There's a danger in overlap of the private sector and public sector. Policing shouldn't be influenced by corporate interests that profit from Big Data and that have an obvious interest in promoting these new technologies.'"
Crockford brings up an important consideration, but it is a general consideration and I don't believe there should be any concern here. Predictive policing doesn't require a police department to, somehow, put all its eggs in one basket. It is only a tool that will influence the placement of patrol time that already must take a back seat to responding to calls. What does concern me is the price that PredPol is charging. Not only is it high but it is recurring year to year because they are using a Software As a Service (SAAS) business model. There is, as far as I can see, no intellectual property in question. The equations the algorithm is based on are public and easily implemented in software. The tie in to GIS to generate maps is now commonplace. This field is ripe for competition and that should drive the price way way down. There is no valid reason, other than profit, this has to be a SAAS application. The software can be sold as a package and run on the police department's own computers. There needn't be an ongoing contractual relationship with a private company. A final point about Crockford's comment. Predictive Policing does not use or require "Big Data". The number of data points needed per type of crime is on the order of 1200-2000. It seems that the phrase "Big Data" is in vogue in the media and is used outside of situations where it is applicable. This is one of them.
"In fact, every city that SF Weekly contacted seeking independent analyses or reviews of PredPol's software has told us that no such thing exists."
All that is needed is to make available the crime data for a city. An independent researcher can write software themselves which implements a semi-parametric self-exciting point process to see if PredPol's model has any accuracy. It would be nice if the city or PredPol provided the generated daily prediction boxes for a period of time. A metric for accuracy relative to a crime analyst's choices or a random a selection of prediction boxes is easy to get. What will take time is showing the efficacy of the program in relation to crime reduction. That will take many years and there is no way around that. A city adopting predictive policing is experimenting but they do have data relating to using hot spots in general to rely on. If there is an immediate increase in accuracy it is reasonable to believe there will be a reduction in crime at least as good as simpler hot spotting programs. By the way, independent analysis is not so important as having the raw data and algorithm available for independent review.
"In addition, the Santa Cruz police provided academic journal articles authored by PredPol's Mohler and Brantingham, both of whom have a financial stake in proving the method works."
It doesn't matter that Mohler and Brantingham are potentially biased. As long as the journal articles are peer reviewed that will reveal proper criticisms of the research or model. Those articles are, in fact, peer reviewed. I do take Philip Stark's criticisms seriously. However, you just summarized his criticism of earthquake prediction and application of a swarm model to crime. There is not much more detail than "they don't work".
"If PredPol's links to earthquake prediction are questionable, its connection to militarized studies of insurgents and civilian deaths is potentially even more troubling."
I don't see this as troubling at all. The researchers are applying a model created for earthquake swarms to a couple of different areas, including a military application. This is not a case of city police adopting military tactics. The fact that the military application was worked on first is irrelevant. As far as stripping away constitutional rights, it would be completely invalid to use presence in a prediction box as reasonable suspicion. It doesn't matter how accurate the prediction for locality of crime is, that cannot, and must not, be translated into suspicion about a particular person.
"PredPol, short for "predictive policing," is riding this wave of techno-mania and capitalizing on the belief, especially here in San Francisco, that there's a killer app for everything, including crime-fighting."
I don't think the "wave of techo-mania" has anything to do with predictive policing. Three things have converged that allow PredPol to potentially flourish as a company.
1). Hot Spot policing, another term for predictive policing has become increasingly adopted across the nation in the last few years. This has been more of a formalization of a veteran cop's intuition rather than glomming on to some new technology out of the blue. The history of predictive policing described in this very article also contradicts the idea that there is a wave of techno-mania involved.
2). Law enforcement grants coming from federal or state government agencies have become more plentiful since 9/11.
3). Recent research into the application of Bayesian Inference on earthquake swarms has led to the application of the same model(s) to predictive policing.
Additionally, many police departments have suffered budget cuts in the last few years and are desperately looking to make limited resources more effective.
"Merritt pressed Fowler about whether the program could handle violent crime. "Homicide is a priority in the department — and if it is not there it would just beg the question why not," she wrote."
Merritt doesn't understand what "beg the question" means. Hers is a common error where not addressing an issue at all is begging the question. Homicide isn't included because it is much less common than crimes such as burglary. You need a minimum number of data points before the accuracy of the model is useful. Including a longer history of crime has its own limitations because over many years neighborhoods change for other reasons that ultimately affect crime. It is also the case that homicide can be a crime of passion which doesn't lend itself as well to predicting localized repetition.
PredPol now claims to be including gun violence in its prediction model. From their website:
"Gun violence predictions are as accurate as PredPol’s proven predictions for crimes like burglaries and auto thefts — anticipating twice as many crimes as traditional hotspot mapping."
Be skeptical of this. They are just saying their software's prediction is more accurate than what a crime analyst would come up with using the same data. If the prediction of the crime analyst is lousy than their prediction is a bit less lousy. This does not state that gun violence prediction is as accurate as the prediction for burglaries, it states that the ratio of accurate instances of gun violence in hot spots to those of a crime analyst is the same ratio one sees in the comparison of the two for other crimes. The accuracy is not the same, the ratio is.
"...showcased the company and its software as if it were straight out of Philip K. Dick's short story, "The Minority Report."
I am sure the media cannot resist making this comparison bringing in the SciFi aspect. This very article has now made itself more interesting by referencing "The Minority Report". I dearly love P. K. Dick's stories, but predictive policing has nothing in common with, hot tub enslaved, precogs pinpointing potential criminals and their future crimes. The authors here, to their credit, understand this but what they fail to point out is the main reason for this skewed, scifi, understanding of predictive policing is that law enforcement hides, or deemphasizes, the use of the Koper Curve Principle in implementing predictive policing or hot spotting in general. The Koper Curve Principle states that patrols 12-16 minutes in length every 2 hours within a hot spot will reduce crime within that hot spot. You can see why law enforcement doesn't want to talk about this aspect much. They are afraid criminals are smart enough to wait around for 16 minutes before starting or continuing their criminal activities. The upshot is that additional patrols are not a stakeout within a hot spot or prediction box. Each one will consume only 10%-12% of an officers time. The number of hot spots generated by the software needs to match the currently available resources of the police department. The officer is not expected to catch a criminal in the act. The reduction in crime is due to a perceived increase in police presence deterring potential criminals from executing their chosen crimes.
This article covers some important points and I appreciate the investigative research into the aggressive marketing done by PredPol. However, it doesn't give a good overall picture of predictive policing or PredPol's technology, in particular.
"An algorithm, the exact nature of which is a proprietary secret closely guarded by PredPol..."
Although the SAAS nature of the business model engenders a protective envelope around the algorithm, it is not, in fact, secret. You can view the following video (http://vimeo.com/50315082) which is a lecture by PredPol Chief Scientist, George Mohler. He discusses the mathematics/statistics behind the algorithm and, at one point, invites the audience not to take his word for it's accuracy because he is employed by PredPol, but to take the equations discussed and plug in crime data (e.g. Chicago's open source crime data) to see if the model has any accuracy. Inadvertently, he is pointing out that implementing these published algorithms is not that difficult. This undoubtedly makes the marketing folk at PredPol rather nervous and perhaps the video will be taken down soon. Nonetheless, there are scientific papers published covering those equations and they cannot be removed.
Some crime sprees occur when hard working people cannot find adequate work, housing and food despite their best efforts. And we pass judgment on them as lazy and irresponsible, when they are trying to feed their families and survive. America has turned its back on God and the poor, while worshiping at the altar of greed, guns and ruthless corporate bullies.
“Predictive policing” is equivalent to alchemy or transforming pseudoscience into science by collecting stochastic events into a computer database application and allowing it to populate a particular set of random outcomes into a non-particular set of variable outcomes. It's snake oil for sale.
PREDICTIVE CODING / MATRIX RANKING the wave of the future. The SF Weekly's capture in cards is prescient.
Data Surfer will help decipher the data, Quintal, for 100, will arrange it into an intuitive pattern.
San Francisco is run by such an amazing group of featherbedding, overpaid incompetents. How about the overtime Sheriff's sarges asleep on the job? That's going to cost the City big time.
I read the story in your print edition this morning and I can't believe the utterly moronic comment from the ACLU person at the end.
Why do people commit robberies ? Because they are criminals. We don't need a lengthy study on this.
Private sector is enough to take of policing needs and everything else in our city, the state, the country and the world.
@red.marcy.rand Thank you for providing an accurate example of "begging the question". I can now send a tweet off to Susan Merritt pointing to your example and correcting her mistaken use of "beg the question" quoted in this article.