Urban Wire Is crowdsourcing for wanted suspects a good idea? No.
Kelly Walsh
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Technology is changing our lives in new and unexpected ways. Those changes are beginning to affect policymaking in many arenas and particularly in crime and justice policy. Advanced technology now allows law enforcement to collect and examine minute traces of physical evidence to identify a suspect, thus improving our certainty of catching and punishing the real offender. Law enforcement has access to sophisticated information systems to identify crime hot spots before they overheat and to hold police management accountable for changes in crime in small places. On the horizon are all sorts of interesting technologies such as biometrics, which includes facial recognition software, that allow police to scan crowds looking for specific people.

We are optimistic that these technologies can improve our ability to deter would-be offenders and apprehend and convict active criminals. However, these changes should be introduced in a thoughtful, strategic manner, not wantonly and recklessly.

One inevitable intersection between technology and policing will be the smartphone app. Already we’ve seen the remarkably ill-advised “Avoid the Ghetto” marketed by Microsoft as a way for private citizens to avoid places where their likelihood of criminal victimization increases (spoiler alert: it won’t work). That, however, is far less dangerous than ill-advised apps allowing private citizens, at the encouragement of police, to identify suspects at large in the community.

That awful idea is being trotted out by the London Metropolitan police and Scotland Yard. According to the Huffington Post, British police are marketing “Facewatch” to Londoners to combine biometrics (facial recognition) and crowd-sourcing (handing out a task, in this case looking for criminal suspects, to lots of people).

Facewatch comes pre-loaded with the faces of 5,000 suspects and the suspect database is regularly updated. While some may use the app as intended (providing the identity to police of someone they already know) the app could easily turn crime-fighting into a game. You enter a bar or some other crowded place with some friends, look through your pictures on Facewatch for suspects in that zip code and see who can be the first to spot a felon. Call it in, the police make a bust and you are a winner. What could possibly go wrong?

Lots, of course.

There are all sorts of possible unintended consequences. For one, many studies have shown that eyewitnesses are generally really bad at identifying strangers. Thus the app is likely to lead to lots of false reports and waste precious law enforcement resources. Also, the sorts of places where identifications are likely to occur (bars, restaurants, sporting events, public transportation, etc.) leave a lot of bystanders vulnerable if the suspect resists arrest. Or, worse, it is easy to imagine vigilantes taking the law into their own hands when, for example, a wanted child molester is spotted.

And finally, a clever crook could use the app to find out if they were under suspicion and use the app to monitor police investigations.

The other big problem with this idea is that it is actually a terrifically inefficient way to catch suspects. The app comes with the implicit assumption that the government does not know where these people are or who they are and needs your help to find them. In many places police know where suspects are most likely to be located but have insufficient manpower to catch them. Or, these suspects are low priority arrests. Or, their locations are known to one agency (the one sending them supplemental Social Security checks for instance) but are not available to law enforcement. And, rather than law enforcement making evidence-based decisions about how to prioritize scarce policing resources, the public is leading the process creating the most haphazard possible resource allocation.

A much better solution would be to ditch the app and spend those resources creating 21st century information systems that most cities do not have today. In many places, police, lab and court data systems don’t communicate with each other. Court data is often housed in one system and corrections (and maybe probation and parole) are maintained separately. Juvenile systems do not communicate with adult systems and none of these databases can communicate with social and human services. An integrated data infrastructure is lot less sexy than Facewatch but far more efficient and more urgently needed.

And finally, the Trayvon Martin homicide should be sufficient evidence to prove once and for all that it is always a terrible idea for private citizens to act like law enforcement.  

Research Areas Crime, justice, and safety
Tags Policing and community safety
Policy Centers Justice Policy Center