Saturday, December 31, 2011

Predictive policing and the PreCog paradox

Once they notice you, Jason realized, they never completely close the file. You can never get back your anonymity. It is vital not to be noticed in the first place.
Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said - Philip K. Dick (1974)

Philip K Dick was among the greatest sci-fi writers. He wrote award-winning books that became film noir classics like Bladerunner and Minority Report. Clearly, Dick was deeply suspicious of authority and technology.

I wonder if he'd agree with Malcolm Sparrow's critique of evidence-based policing? What would he think of mathematicians who want to solve the city with math? Or experiments to predict when or where crime will happen before it does?

And now NPR reports there's a new LAPD unit dedicated to predictive analysis. Some say this is our tomorrow. On closer inspection it seems like cost/benefit gone amok.

Minority Report celebrates PreCogs, mutated humans who predict murder ahead of time - celebrated until they predict murder by the cop supposed to stop it. Logical calculation gone amok?

In Voltaire's Bastards: The Dictatorship of Reason in the West, modern philosopher John Ralston Saul says we must guard against the unsentimental application of cost/benefit analysis and logical calculation. That's why, he says, "experts" are so often wrong. There are some things we cannot accurately predict. Weather for one. The economy for another, as recent events prove.

This is particularly true regarding crime. Saul says when predictive experts fail they are just replaced by a new group who say they can do better.

Voltaire once warned against adopting a vulgar rationalism (aka predictive technology) to determine what is, and what is not, appropriate use of authority and technology.

If we are to use predictive technology, may 2012 be the year we wake up to our own shortcomings for using it wisely.

Monday, December 26, 2011

New Year's Resolution - Cut the Fat

As we embark upon a new year it is worth remembering the lessons of the past so we can minimize the bad and maximize the good. During this sea of recessionary dread, one lesson bound to resurface is police service delivery costs spiraling out of control.

It is mystifying how we can authentically discuss safety as though the community wasn't part of the equation. Yet, whenever we discuss police service delivery that is precisely what we do.

It is incumbent on municipal politicians - indeed it is their job - to learn reality versus the myth of police service delivery. As they say; what is our return on investment?

I found a speech by a leading criminologist on the topic. Informed police officers will recognize John Eck as founder of the SARA model in problem-oriented policing. Eck offers a cautionary tale we should heed in the new year.

An excerpt:

"Police, to the common person, are a free service and what we know about free services is this. You give us things for free and we consume more of it. That's what makes us fat. A modest amount of policing is far better than a large amount…

…we are going to have to live within our budget. We cannot ask these officers, highly trained, very dedicated, to answer all of the calls we currently have them answer with fewer numbers. They are having a difficult enough time as it is."

If the link doesn't load properly, click HERE

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Safety Disney Style - Unlighting the streets

A few days in Disneyland proves a welcoming distraction. Disney is an example of fantasy story-telling and juvenile adventure from a company that practically invented the concept.

Most interesting was seeing Disneyland streets at night. Many are quite dark. Except for Main Street it is the surrounding buildings that show up in neon splendor. The point is to make streets predictable to allow easy walking without stumbling (I did anyway).

Then it's a simple matter to highlight surrounding features with spectacular lighting and beautiful reflections. This has the subtle effect of drawing you in to have a closer look. The ambient spillover light is more than adequate to navigate the streets.

For anyone obsessed on lighting streets, Disney shows how you can do safety and not light streets at all.

True, this is easy when people arrive in families seeking cartoon fantasies. How angry can you get in the company of Goofy, Tinker Bell and Mickey? It's a self-selection that breeds natural surveillance.

If you're up for some high-falutin Foucauldian theory about this read Shearing and Stenning's 1984 article - From the Panopticon to Disney World: The Development of Discipline.

When reading this it helps to resist the duh reflex. "Disney is an exemplar of modern private corporate policing". Translation: Walk for days through hundreds of exhibits, restaurants, and recreational areas without fear of crime by following Disney's rules. Duh.

Disney does this, they say, by embedding social control into the physical and management systems so that control becomes consensual. Like lighting the buildings and not the streets.

For my money, spent on a holiday in Disneyland, the corporate order of Mickey and Minnie is a fun reprieve. And if I tire of Disney's subtle corporate order, I just leave.

Happy Holidays.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

A Gift for the Holidays

Back in New Orleans this week talking at a crime summit hosted by Louisiana AARP. The topic is how SafeGrowth and the Hollygrove success story might work throughout the city.

The highlight was meeting old friends from Hollygrove
and watching them tell their story to groups from throughout the city. A 78% decline in crime rates this year is quite a story, especially when crime elsewhere in the city is plateauing.

Recently there has been an increase in New Orleans homicides. Hollygrove's homicides have declined from 20 to 4.


How, they were asked, did they turn things around?

Difficult to spell out in clear steps. Certainly plenty of early steps were underway soon after Hurricane Katrina. A garden center was reinvigorated by volunteers (see photo). The city began a program of condemning and demolishing blighted properties (over 35% of all homes were condemned when we did our first SafeGrowth session 3 years ago. Today that's down to just under 20%).

Then AARP Louisiana came to the table with their Livability Academy and training. Change sped up considerably.

For me this neighborhood continues to improve due to the soul and gumption of some local residents. They started their own non-profit organization and now claim ownership for making changes themselves.

Here's a few things the residents did:

1.Installed their own street lighting when they could not get the city to do it
2.Could not get official street signs so used politicians signs from the last election to make their own (see…politicians can help troubled neighborhoods!)
3.Quadrupled attendance at Night Out Against Crime walks
4.Cleaned and swept their own streets.
5.Absent landlords refused to move lawns, local residents did it
6.Partnered with police and the city to shut down a drug house
7.Created a seniors walking group - the Soul Steppers - to take back their streets. Soul Stepper groups are now throughout New Orleans
8.Got a problem bar to get rid of drug dealers
9.Bus department would not repair a bus shelter so they built their own with recycled materials

And so on.

That's how you start to turn a place around.

To my friends in Hollygrove, congratulations! It's a great way to start the new year.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

On the shoulders of giants

Pruitt-Igoe public housing, St. Louis, 1977. Photo - Creative Commons

CPTED is 40 this year!

Professor C. Ray Jeffery's book "CPTED" was published in 1971. Oscar Newman's "Defensible Space" in 1972. That's four decades of preventing crime. In an age before prevention was situational, crime was designed out, policing was intelligent or activities routine, CPTED led the way.

Of course, Newman and Jeffery stood on the shoulders of giants. A decade earlier there was Jane Jacobs, Elizabeth Wood, and Schlomo Angel. By 1971 Jacobs had already invented territoriality and eyes on the street. Wood had already written on the merits of lively diverse neighborhoods (and flower-growing contests to brighten them up).

All this...decades before the broken windows theory reinvented that wheel.

Jane Jacobs, 1960, New York. Photo - Creative Commons

CPTED wasn't the first kid on the prevention block. Police have always done prevention, most of it is unevaluated, superficial and generic. None of it place-based or specific. Scholars made contributions to prevention, especially 1930s sociologists like Robert Shaw at the University of Chicago who created the Chicago Area Project. (Still running, still successful.)

Giants also came from geography. From 1968 geographers began writing books on place-based crime. Led by Harries in the US, Scott in Australia, and Herbert in the UK, the geography of crime later became environmental criminology. It probably didn't prevent much crime. But it added to our understanding and moved the place-is-important debate squarely into CPTED turf. Which brings us back to CPTED and its birthday. It's worth learning what the pioneers actually said.

Then I came across this rare, and oddly haunting, film of Oscar Newman speaking to the inaugural session of the United Nations Habitat conference in 1976 Vancouver.

A ghost from our past talking about our world today.