Predictive Policing Blog

Are We at a Tipping Point in Police-Community Relations?

George Floyd’s killing in Minneapolis was nothing less than a tragedy and a breakdown of the social contract between the protector and the protected. We know, as a nation, that far too many similar tragedies pervade our country’s history. Yet despite the increased recent attention on policing procedures since the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, Eric Garner in New York City, and Freddie Gray in Baltimore, these unnecessary deaths continue.

Despite decades of attempts at progress, racial inequality remains a significant problem for America – perhaps our greatest failure as a nation. Outcomes for people of color, especially Black Americans, are significantly worse than for white Americans in virtually every category: life expectancy, educational attainment, personal wealth, unemployment, and rates of incarceration.

Many of these categories are influenced by interactions between Black Americans and our criminal justice system. Having a criminal record or being incarcerated has a significant impact on the ability to find or keep a job, go to college, build wealth, and raise a family – all key elements of what we think of as the “American dream.”

We can do better. We must do better.

The questions about policing go beyond just the treatment of Black Americans. Allegations of excessive force against people of all ethnicities exist, and those who live in poor communities are much more likely to have violent interactions with law enforcement.

But look at much how the job of policing has changed. In most cities, a majority of officer time is spent dealing with issues that are more social than legal: homelessness, drug and alcohol addiction, mental health, and often a combination of all of these. Officers trained at the academy in the basics of law enforcement are asked to be drug counselors, social workers, and roadside psychiatrists. Even experienced officers find many of these social problems to be almost overwhelming.

At the same time, the proliferation of high-powered weapons has made the job of being a peace officer much more dangerous. Civilians in the US now own 46% of the world’s firearms, and a study in 2018 noted that:

“American civilians own nearly 100 times as many firearms as the U.S. military and nearly 400 times as many as law enforcement.”

This has obvious implications for peace officers. Just this week, in our small rural county of Santa Cruz, California, Deputy Sgt. Damon Gutzwiller was tragically murdered in cold blood by an assailant armed with an assault rifle, pistol, and pipe bombs.

Our current national dialogue around policing is long overdue. Demonstrations around the country – and the world – show that this is a matter of urgency. And yet there is a fear among many that it will fade again into the background.

Emotions are running high on both sides. Demonstrations have escalated into riots. Some peaceful demonstrations have been met by disproportionate violence by police officers. At the same time, police unions around the country say they feel abandoned by their governments and their communities.

What’s the way out? This is a highly charged discussion with no obvious or simple answers. The best place to start is with dialogue and with data. We need to have objective discussions of the problems of racial inequality in America. We need to recognize that there are significant problems in this country with homelessness, with addiction, and with mental health. We need to discuss the use of force by police, and we need to recognize when force is warranted and proportional to the situation. We also need to understand that we are putting our peace officers in sometimes impossible situations by asking them to solve problems that they are not trained or prepared for, problems that we as a country have not even been able to address adequately.

PredPol was founded on the audacious premise that we could help make the practice of policing better in America. By “better” we mean providing less bias, more transparency, and more accountability.

From the beginning, our approach has been based on data. By analyzing large, anonymized datasets, we found we could predict how certain crime types – and, conversely, rates of victimization – developed and moved throughout a city. By asking officers to patrol these locations, our partner agencies have been able to deter crimes before they occur. No crime means no victim, no investigation and arrest, and nobody to put through the criminal justice system. Everyone in society benefits.

Emotion and passion from all sides will inevitably drive the conversation. That is not a bad thing: it means everyone is invested in the importance of the debate and its resolution. But in order to have this conversation, we need to find some common ground, a starting place where people can begin to work together to find solutions.

We believe that the starting point is data: objective, agreed-upon facts that can be used to guide the discussion. Data provides transparency in decision making, it provides auditability of decisions, and it allows all sides to be part of the discussion using the same tools and logic. A well-educated population is the foundation of a robust democracy, and we at PredPol are profoundly hopeful that we as a country can work together to heal the very real inequalities still experienced by far too many of our citizens.

Learn More About PredPol