The Chicago Police Department (CPD) has chosen a rather controversial approach to stem the tide of homicides in that city. Instead of just deploying the usual tactics of increased patrols, police checkpoints, or stop and frisk to identify suspects, CPD is looking to prevent homicides altogether by using research to identify high-risk individuals.
The idea is based on work by Andrew Papachristos, a Yale sociology professor, who conducted a five-year study of one area in Chicago to examine relationships between social networks and homicide. One of his central findings was that:
patterns of individual homicide victimization are influenced by social proximity to homicide victims. An individual who associates with or is in close social proximity to other homicide victims exists (and acts) in a social world where risky people, situations, and behaviors are present and active (download the full study here).
In other words, the closer you are socially to a homicide victim, the more likely you are to be a victim of homicide yourself. And, one of the other primary factors useful in identifying these high-risk individuals? Prior arrests.
The CPD has translated these findings into a program that identifies lists of individuals at high risk for either committing, or being the victim of, a homicide in the near future. They then target these individuals for arrest on any and all infractions, including relatively minor violations.
The idea is to keep identified suspects off the streets as much as possible as a way to limit their potential to engage in what the police predict to be a higher probability of serious crime.
While this might sound good on the surface, it also contains a troubling element of circular reasoning: If prior arrest (even for minor infractions) is a factor that makes an individual high-risk, and arrest for minor infractions is also used as a strategy to reduce risk, are the police creating a class of individuals targeted not for the serious crimes they’ve committed, but for those they might commit?
Have we entered the era of so-called “pre-crime,” and is Andrew Papachristos our first Pre-cog?
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