Is there a way to balance growing concerns about the intrusive, trust-draining aspects of "broken windows" policing against both the need to combat violent crime and the civil rights of urban communities?
It's a vitally important topic, not least in the US, where the summer of 2014 has seen an explosive growth in gun violence in Chicago and widespread denunciation of policing tactics in Ferguson, Mo., and here in New York City. It's a dauntingly large topic, too, but one aspect that is worth examining involves some eye-catching statistics -- and the opportunities created by technological innovation.
In cities like New York, where the incidence of violent crime is reaching an unprecedented low, zero-tolerance policing of quality-of-life crimes (like subway dancing), or seemingly trivial offenses like selling cigarettes by the stick on the street corner, has come to be increasingly resented. "Stop and frisk" was not only widely resented; it was recently determined to be illegal. Resented too are the so-called Skywatch surveillance towers, especially when they appear to be located in once-risky neighborhoods that are now gentrifying.
On the other hand, complaints about intrusiveness are muted when surveillance video is used to identify violent criminals. Ironically, there are increasing calls for police to conduct their activities under continuous video surveillance. People will tolerate monitoring when it's fair, targeted, and effective.
Those statistics? Some facts and figures from the Yale Institute for Social and Policy Studies highlight the verifiable existence of urban violence hotspots:
- Researchers in Boston concluded from a study of 30 years' data that gun violence was intensely concentrated in about 5% of the city's streets and intersections.
- One percent of youths in a narrow age segment were responsible for half the city's murders and 70% of the gun violence.
It seems intuitively unlikely that generalized zero-tolerance policing of minor offenses (or widespread "stop and frisk," were it legal) would be an appropriately selective approach to dealing with such a concentrated problem.
So far, and in practice, micro-policing has really just meant neighborhood policing. The Project Safe Neighborhood program has seen some success -- even in Chicago -- but it operates, as the name implies, at the neighborhood level rather than at the street corner level.
We now live in an environment where micro-monitoring of streets, down to the parking space level, is a reality. Running sophisticated analytics against data generated by networks of videos and smart sensors helps manage the parking inventory of a city like San Mateo, Calif.
Why shouldn't similar networks manage gun violence in a city like Chicago? If hotspots and potential perpetrators can be defined with the precision research suggests, real-time monitoring of suspicious activity in micro-neighborhoods not only could be a viable approach to reducing violent crime, but it could also attract public support.
Less insensitive than sweeping surveillance of neighborhoods struggling to climb out of poverty, more relevant than heavy-handed policing of trivial offenses, and focused on criminals who are a genuine threat to the people around them, such an initiative could see the police regaining ground in the fight against serious crime -- and maybe also regaining some public trust.
— Kim Davis , Editor-in-Chief, SaaS in the Enterprise