Cities Turn to ‘Predictive Policing’ Algorithms to Calculate When Cops Will Go Rogue

There are no easy fixes for the Minneapolis Police Department. State lawmakers tried and failed last month to come up with a reform plan after four officers were charged in the death of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man; the city council is proceeding with a proposal to dismantle the department altogether.

Last month Police Chief Medaria Arradondo outlined his own ideas for change, which included working with an obscure technology firm named Benchmark Analytics. The company takes the idea of predictive policing—which uses algorithms to forecast where crimes will occur or who will commit them—and turns it on its head, using a computer model to predict which officers are most likely to be involved in misconduct.

Benchmark’s system feeds data— citizen complaints, which cops hold second jobs, who’s been called to traumatic situations such as domestic abuse or suicide prevention— through a computer model that ranks each officer according to their perceived risk score. In a recent demo conducted via video, Chief Executive Officer Ron Huberman showed off a series of slick dashboards enabling departments to compare cops and units within a department, as well as analyze officers on specific attributes, such as how proficient they are at de-escalating confrontation.

It’s not clear Minneapolis will ever use such dashboards; the city’s deal with Benchmark stalled after an initial plan to pay for it fell through. But even if Benchmark doesn’t move ahead in Minneapolis, it’s doing so elsewhere. Huberman says the company has signed up 70 law enforcement agencies over the last three years, all of whom will be using the company’s technology within 12 months. Nashville, which began working with Benchmark in 2018, will officially launch its system, called First Sign, in late July.

Huberman, who spent almost a decade at the Chicago Police Department before moving into leadership roles in city government, doesn’t blame systemic policy failures or training for the violent police encounters that have sparked a nationwide reckoning. In his view, police violence is mostly the result of a small number of officers he describes as “malevolent actors” and “bad apples.” The main challenge is identifying them before anything goes wrong. “And I can tell you from the data,” he says, “that this is really a knowable thing.”

But Benchmark’s technology, based on a program by the University of Chicago’s Center for Data Science and Public Policy, faces significant challenges. Its success depends on the quality of data from the police departments, which can vary widely. The company’s progress has been halting even in precincts that have signed on, and it has struggled to follow through on its promises, according to people familiar with its technology.

Even if the kinks are worked out, there’s no consensus that what American policing needs most is a new technical tool. The last decade has seen waves of innovation, from elaborate surveillance systems to automated decision-making. But cities have begun to ban the police use of technologies like facial recognition and predictive policing over concerns about their efficacy and fairness. Meanwhile, the most prominent use of technology for police accountability— body cameras—has shown mixed results, in part because of uneven practices about when officers turn them on.

Andrew Ferguson, a law professor at American University and author of The Rise of Big Data Policing, says that during moments of controversy there’s always a spike in enthusiasm for new tools, but they don’t usually make much of a difference. “When you don’t trust people, you try to trust data,” he says. “There is a market for companies to sell the hope of police accountability, even if they can’t sell actual police accountability.”

Police departments have been developing methods to anticipate potentially problematic officers since the early 1970s. Most forces now have some form of the personnel-tracking programs usually known as early intervention systems. They’re often as simple as flagging any officer associated with a certain number of complaints or use-of-force reports, and they’re widely regarded as ineffective. Police departments have periodically experimented with more advanced systems as well, such as a 1990s-era effort in Chicago called “Brainmaker.” They haven’t stuck.

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In This Story: George Floyd

George Floyd was an African-American man who died on 25th May 2020 in Powderhorn, Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA, following police arrest. Video recording by a witness, showing Floyd repeating “Please”, “I can’t breathe”, and “Don’t kill me”, was widely circulated on social media platforms and broadcast by media. The incident led to widespread protests across the United States.

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