Rezension: Predictive Policing und polizeilicher Alltag

Rezension: zusammen mit 

Simon Egbert and Matthias Leese: Criminal Futures: Predictive Policing and Everyday Police Work. 2021, Oxon, New York: Routledge

von Claudio Altenhain, Berlin

Predictive policing (PP in what follows) has been the subject of much scientific and media attention as of recently, whereas the recurrent narrative of an imminent technological ‘revolution’ in law enforcement and the relative lack of pertinent ethnographic research have inevitably benefited the proliferation of rather speculative and, at times, patently hyperbolic accounts. The concomitant prevalence of forcedly ‘critical’ and – albeit to a lesser extent – conspicuously ‘techno-skeptical’ perspectives is unsatisfactory inasmuch as it largely ignores PP as a material practice, thereby missing out on both its mundane appropriations and its inscription into more large-scale processes of techno-institutional reform and change. PP might, in other words, turn out to be simultaneously much less spectacular and way more pivotal than many of its cultural representations – and, by consequence, a non-negligible share of scientific analyses – would make believe.

It is against this backdrop of more or less empirically informed academic guesswork that Criminal Futures covers invaluable ground insofar as it arguably represents the first book-length examination of PP in practice: Based upon comprehensive fieldwork (interviews and participant observation) in several German and Swiss police precincts, the book sets out to analyze the ‘full cycle’ of PP, starting with its criminological foundations and its institutional desirability, covering its actual implementations and utilizations, and finally providing a critical outlook concerning its possible future implications. While the book’s most original contribution is to be found in the more ‘empirical’ chapters (especially 4-7), it is evident that the insights gained during fieldwork also inform and feed back into its more ‘conceptual’ parts (chapters 1-3 and 8-10). Whereas its chapters can easily be read as stand-alone contributions to the ongoing scientific debate on PP, Criminal Futures thus makes a sustained effort to unfold a more comprehensive argument which is well worth following.

As the authors make clear in the book’s introduction, Criminal Futures conceives of PP along two organizing axes, namely (1) in terms of its emphatically socio-technical – that is, ontologically ‘impure’ – qualities and (2) concerning its significance in overarching trends towards the gradual digitization and ‘platformization’ of police work. It is noticeably by means of this double emphasis that Criminal Futures aims to circumvent the two main pitfalls in discussing PP, namely to invest it with some kind of quasi-teleological momentum (which it lacks) or to depict it as ‘just another’ computational gadget in the hands of the police (when its actual implications are indeed much more consequential than that). The book thus proposes – and largely succeeds – to depict PP as an ultimately contingent form of institutional practice which nonetheless occupies a prominent position in an ongoing redefinition and reconfiguration of what police work is ultimately about.

Conceptually speaking, Criminal Futures mostly borrows from science and technology studies, whereas the notion of ‘translation’ acquires crucial significance as it draws attention to the multiple ‘gaps’ which have to be bridged if PP is to succeed: gaps between the operational steps of data collection and preparation, algorithmic analysis, visualization and dissemination, and patrolling; gaps between police ranks and the corresponding types of professional culture; gaps between different types of software, data bases, and jurisdictions. This plethora of gaps squarely contradicts any depiction of PP as a ready-made, plug-and-play policing ‘solution’; instead, Criminal Futures focuses upon the steady, often strikingly prosaic and tedious efforts necessary to turn PP into an operational principle of contemporary law enforcement. Indeed, the empirical chapters are rife with accounts testifying to PP’s necessarily incomplete, tentative, and improvisatory character while highlighting recurrent cases of resistance and outright failure.

While Criminal Futures thus effectively debunks technophilic pipe dreams of PP as a slick and seamless reality and even quotes several police officers expressing all kinds of skepticism towards its implementation, the book does not fail to address PP’s potential pitfalls, noticeably when it comes to the protection of civil rights and discriminatory police practices. However, Criminal Futures does not join in dystopic narratives of a fully automatized and hermetically ‘black-boxed’ law enforcement; as the authors make sufficiently clear, virtually all of their respondents were strongly in favor of maintaining the ‘human in the loop’, thus keeping investigative knowledge transparent and negotiable. Meanwhile, the book draws attention to another epiphenomenon of PP which arguably deserves more critical attention – namely, the desire for ever more comprehensive data bases. As a self-perpetuating interplay of databank integration and increasingly sophisticated PP solutions, the concomitant tendency towards ‘platform policing’ can already be observed in Germany as well as in Switzerland, warranting both public scrutiny and legislative safeguards in order to prevent institutional abuse.

Summing up, Criminal Futures represents an utterly timely contribution to the current debate on PP; meticulously researched and well-written, it constitutes indispensable reading for scholars and practitioners alike. Not least, the book deserves praise for introducing two case studies from continental Europe, thus counterbalancing the present focus on North American police forces and showing how nationally and/or regionally specific legislations, professional cultures, and administrative traditions can and do have a manifest impact upon the ways in which PP is being implemented, appropriated, and problematized. It is to be hoped that the book will soon be complemented by similar studies in other national contexts.