Police turn to ‘precogs’ in knife emergency

Declaring war: “We need to win this arms race,” said former Met chief Bernard Hogan-Howe.

In the face of the crisis over knife crime, Britain is developing “predictive policing” technology akin to the sci-fi movie Minority Report. The plan is already proving controversial.

She speaks with deep emotion and great courage. “I just remember the paramedic calling my mum over. He put his hand on my mum’s hand. And that’s when I realised what had happened. He didn’t even reach 15.”

No one who watched last night will forget Leah Moodie-Green, sister of Jaden Moodie, aged 14, the youngest stabbing victim of 2019 so far, giving her first interview to the Channel 4 Dispatches documentary Britain’s Knife Crisis: Young, Armed and Dangerous.

It comes at a bleak time. On Friday night in London, a teenager walked up to Jodie Chesney, 17, and stabbed her in the back without a word. On Saturday, Yousef Ghaleb Makki, also 17, was stabbed in Cheshire. Both are now dead. Two others stabbed in central London over the weekend are fighting for their lives.

West Midlands Police Commissioner David Jamieson yesterday called knife crime a “national emergency”. Home Secretary Sajid Javid declared “young people are being murdered across the country”. He will hold a crisis meeting with police leaders tomorrow.

Bernard Hogan-Howe, former head of London’s Metropolitan Police, said the violence had three roots: drugs, a culture of knife-carrying and a growing number of “young men who do not seem to care”. He called on the government to appoint a “knife crime tsar”.

But his most radical demand was for behavioural science software that would help police find who and when to search. He was referring to a secretive plan for UK police forces to predict crime before it happens using artificial intelligence.

The idea has been compared to the plot of the Tom Cruise sci-fi classic Minority Report, in which clairvoyant “precogs” predict crimes before they takes place. In the real-life version, called National Data Analytics Solution (NDAS), the precogs are replaced by huge data banks feeding computer algorithms. People will have a “risk score” based on gang membership, previous convictions and psychological profiling.

West Midlands Police is testing a model due for UK-wide launch later this year. Other countries are following. America has a programme called PredPol, developed at Santa Clara University in California.

Searching questions

But isn’t the real answer young people themselves? Peter Traynor, a British academic who interviewed teenagers involved in knife crime from all over the UK, says that most are looking for ways to fight it. “They just need support.”

And since when did the police decide they could turn from crime fighting to launching a surveillance state? The Alan Turing Institute on digital ethics has seen some of the West Midlands Police project and is deeply alarmed. Quite apart from the potential abuse of data, what if predictive policing predicts wrongly?

You Decide

  1. Has the time come for young people to campaign against knife crime?
  2. Should we prioritise more police on the streets or better technology to help crime prevention?


  1. “It is important to recognise that many young people do not offend and often find themselves trying to resist and confront those who carry knives”. Do you have a personal experience of knife crime? Please describe it in less than 500 words.
  2. “The tantalising prospect of predicting crime before it happens has got law enforcement agencies excited about AI”. List five arguments for and five against predictive policing. Share them in class and create a single summary of everyone’s views.

Some People Say...

“[There is] no correlation between tougher sentences and reduction in crime.”

Akala, rapper and author

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
We know that Home Office numbers show there were 42,957 offences in the 12 months ending in September 2018, a 31% increase on the previous year and the highest number since 2011, the earliest point for which comparable data is available. However, although knife crime is on the increase, it should be seen in context. It is relatively unusual for a violent incident to involve a knife, and rarer still for someone to need hospital treatment.
What do we not know?
Amazingly, national data on the number of children and teens killed by knives in any given year is not publicly available. Nor is there any evidence to support the widely-held belief that race and ethnicity have any significance at all on knife crime.

Word Watch

Behavioural science
All the subjects that deal with human behaviour — such as sociology, anthropology, psychology, aspects of biology, economics, geography, law, psychiatry and political science.
Artificial intelligence.
An area of computer science that focuses on the creation of intelligent machines that work and react like humans.
A person who predicts something; a person with extrasensory perception or clairvoyance.
A set of mathematical instructions or rules that, especially if given to a computer, will help to calculate an answer to a problem.
Short for predictive policing. Advocates claim its data analytics algorithms can improve crime detection by up to 50%.



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