Crowdsourcing Police Patrol
Even in high-crime areas, serious crime isn’t a frequent enough event to make wandering around at random looking for it – whether on foot or in a patrol car – a high-payoff strategy. That fact bedevils both police patrol and neighborhood watch: wherever you are, mostly nothing’s happening right now.
But that doesn’t mean that someone isn’t present when the crime happens. The problem is that the person present mostly doesn’t have any good way to intervene. There are more than 200 million adults in the U.S., and fewer than a million cops. Do the arithmetic; the chances of having a civilian witness are way better than the chances of having a police officer – or even someone from the local neighborhood watch or Guardian Angels group – present.
The problem, then, is how to convert those civilian observations into actionable operational intelligence for the police and organized civilian patrol organizations. Cell phones – especially now that they’re mostly camera-equipped – and social media ought to offer some good opportunities here, but taking advantage of those opportunities – crowdsourcing the patrol function – would require something much more sophisticated than the 9-1-1 system. And the police, or any other organization getting the call, needs a real-time way of figuring out whether the crime-in-progress is the real thing; often it won’t be.
That’s not easy. But in a world where we’ve probably hit “peak cop,” we’re going to have to figure out a way of sifting quickly.
At the same time, technology is greatly expanding our capacity to observe and collate. My favorite example: there’s now a $200 toy model aircraft you can buy in the mall that carries two HDTV cameras and a transmitter, and that will fly for an hour at 15 mph on a battery charge. A few of those fixed at high-crime locations – drug corners, for example – and a few more wandering around the neighborhood at random, with observers sitting at desks monitoring them on tablet computers and hooked up to police or auxiliary capacity to intervene, could suddenly make “neighborhood watch” a real crime-fighting activity rather than an exercise in feeling good.
The development of “predictive policing” techniques – statistical approaches to spotting places likely to be sites of future crime – is a force-multiplier here. After a burglary at any address, the chances of a burglary next door or across the street or down the block go up dramatically for a couple of weeks. So does the probability of another burglary at the same address. (After all, the original burglar knows how to break in, and has a good reason to think that he might snag the brand-new TV the homeowner bought to replace the one stolen last time.) So how about concentrating watch activity in likely hot spots, or even offering burglary victims, on a temporary basis, electronic spy-eyes for their doors and windows to try to stop the next burglary when it’s in progress?
You and I can both list the issues. Who pays for this? It’s cheap, but “cheap” isn’t “free.” Who watches the watchers, to prevent everything from peeping-Tom-ism to harassment to political surveillance? How does the neighborhood get to control the extent to which it will be surveilled, and who gets to do the surveillance? Should the data-gathering be for real-time use only, or do we want some of it available for retrospective investigation? And how does all of this get integrated with existing police practice?
But if we want to keep crime coming down as state and local budget crises cause our police protection to melt away, we’re going to have to answer those questions. Now would be a good time to start.