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Chicago's 'Predictive Policing' List Isn't Preventing Violence

A new study finds that the program has failed to prevent gun violence, but has helped identify perpetrators retroactively.

Andrew Nelles/Reuters

Since 2013, Chicago police have been attempting to identify individuals most likely to experience or perpetuate gun violence.

The program, known as the Strategic Subjects List, is supposed to help prevent shootings. But it has raised controversy: Its prediction analysis is based, in part, on identifying people who have been arrested for any crime with anyone who has since become a homicide victim. This selection criterion means that people could be placed on the list even if police have not identified them as currently criminally active.

A new RAND Corporation study has refueled this ongoing public debate, finding that those on the list are no more or less likely to be homicide or shooting victims than the control group that they studied, who were not on the list.

The study also found that those placed on the list were far more likely to be arrested for shootings. This could be, as police told the researchers in interviews, because the list was, in its initial phase, used to identify possible suspects.

“The finding that the list had a direct effect on arrest, rather than victimization,” the RAND researchers note, raises “privacy and civil rights considerations that must be carefully considered, especially for predictions that are targeted at vulnerable groups at high risks of victimization.” This means that the program was useful in investigating crimes after they happened rather than predicting and reducing their incidence.

Of the 426 people on the Strategic Subjects List during the study, 77 percent were black and 95.8 percent were male.

Right now, it’s unclear whether the Strategic Subject Lists’ apparent failure to prevent crime over the study period was a result of flawed program design or implementation. Proper implementation is a concern: Chicago police district commanders reported to the RAND researchers that there was no uniform plan presented for using the lists after the districts received them.

As Jessica Saunders, one of the RAND researchers, told Chicago Magazine, “One of the major findings [of the study] was that the police on the ground, the people in the field, do not get a lot of training about how to use this list and what it means.”

The Chicago Police Department has responded by arguing that the RAND study’s findings are “no longer relevant” because of program modifications put in place after the study period ended. The program is now in its fifth version, and police claim the program’s on the ground implementation and accuracy have since improved dramatically.

According to a Chicago Police Department news release, the department is “currently using SSL Version 5, which is more than 3 times as accurate as the version reviewed by RAND (Version 6 is in simultaneous development). Regarding this prediction model, repeated quantitative evaluations have shown that the model produces very accurate findings (i.e. identification of individuals who are at very high risk for involvement in violence).”

The Chicago Police have invited RAND researchers to review these potential improvements. It will take several years to confirm whether this new form of predictive policing is indeed effective in preventing gun violence. In the meantime, concerns over civil liberties and the disproportionate racial impacts of the program remain.

About the Author

  • George Joseph
    George Joseph is an editorial fellow at CityLab, originally from Denton, Texas. He covers schools, policing, and surveillance.