Matthias Heeder & Monica Hielscher
Country: Germany 88 minutes
A trained cinema audience will recognize that the title of the documentary Pre-Crime is taken from the crime prevention work in the Spielberg film Minority Report made in 2002. Those who might think this seems dark can seek comfort in watching a retired Jeff Bridges as a sheriff in David Mackenzie´s Hell or High Water from last year. Here, he simply uses common sense to calculate where the bankers are going to hit next time–in other words, the cowboy version of what the Eppes brothers did in the 2005 series Numb3rs (a mathematician assists his police brother). Pre-Crime addresses the different facets of this statistically based work: from the perspective of the police as well as social sciences, via technological conditions, to practice and effect. We get the perspective of those affected by the development, namely, of the police that are patrolling the affected areas (like they have always done, now also with data that recommends where they should patrol), and those who experience being prejudged or harassed by the police. The question is: to what extent can we blame the consequences on technology per se? Is the use of technology simply making a system out of prejudice or is it a real improvement?
What the film presents may not be all that new to anyone that reads a newspaper from time to time, but it shows some significant considerations about the developments. Also, we are given the opportunity to reflect on the price of the increased security.
«It would be rather negligent for law inforcement not to make use of the technology that is already part of the toolbox for fund managers and meteorologists.»
Production design, snappy graphics and sound effects give Pre-Crime the look of the usual crime movie, but while it is a little exhausting, it doesn’t degenerate completely. Despite the use of dramatizations, the film is nothing like a cheesy National Geographic documentary, although some phenomenally misplaced fuzz guitars during the closing credits bring those overly dramtic films to mind.
Statistics vs. Reality
Questions about the right procedures to counteract the weaknesses of the statistical algorithms arise. A French sociology professor makes the point that it is necessary to ask the right questions regarding the algorithms in order to prevent law enforcement from misusing their position–to what extent will the algorithms affect the relationship between the police and the public?
Most of us would probably be taken by surprise if we were to be confronted by a concerned police officer who was presenting a statistical explanation of the likelihood that you–having such and such friends, and having been given this or that fine for smoking cannabis, speeding, illegal gambling or otherwise–have a greater probability than others to be affected by crime in the future, either as an offender or as a victim. Simply for your information, followed by the offer of someone you can talk to and the advice to change your friends.
We get to know Robert, a young African-American man who feels both violated and prejudged after such an experience. The reaction is understandable, but that´s when it’s important to take a glance outwards and view it in a larger context. There are far worse offenses that can happen than someone being presented with simple statistical contexts. This is (subject to the frequency of course) similar to having to answer questions from customs agents from time to time, or showing your ticket on the tram when it is required. Some of us have also gotten our loan applications refused in heartless ways. Not everything that is perceived as an offense is a real offense, but rather the cost of living in a constitutional state.
The Conditions of Algorithms
The concern is more that the conditions of the algorithms could have a tendency to enhance the development of the crimes. Robert has plausible objections to the use of algorithms which are focussed on how this can cement trends and ultimately provoke new crimes. This harkens back to the growing American prison industry–including documentaries like DuVernay´s 13th (2016) or Jarecki´s The House I Live In (2012). It is is also a way to keep the wheels moving: through expanding imprisonment to keep the state economy under control while the new cornerstone company in the neighbouring town is the drug dealers on the corner, to paraphrase the creator of The Wire, David Simon.
«Not everything that is perceived as an offense is a real offense, but rather the cost of living in a constitutional state.»
The young African-American´s reactions are highly understandable, seen in the light of the stigmatization to which he feels exposed. It´s odder to hear how professionals struggle to relate to concepts like “models” or “statistics”. It happens very often in the discussions in Pre-Crime that someone accuses the model or statistic as not being identical to reality. As if the point of statistics and models were not to quantify a limited aspect of the phenomenon that is being investigated, preferably one that can be quantified. During the documentary, we receive a timely reminder that the statistics in a field are only 70% correct, and this discrepancy is probably the biggest concern for those aware of this inaccuracy.
Balanced About Old News
What we are shown in Pre-Crime is, in short, that the police have gained somewhat more knowledge than before. The film seems balanced in the sense that it allows both sides to be heard, including a man in Tottenham who was attacked by the police simply because he possessed “the signal of that evening”. Unfortunately this is old news, as condemnable as it may be. Still, it is no objection to information and statistics as such.
It may even be possible to develop algorithms that identify inappropriate soldiers in troops, a research that would probably be funded with “happy tax money”. Considering the rapid development that we have experienced in the field of “information technology”, it would be rather negligent for law inforcement not to make use of the technology that is already part of the toolbox for fund managers and meteorologists. On the theme of technology and government, we are constantly pointed back to clichés such as “who is going to control the controllers?” and “a baton is not good nor bad; it’s the use of it that decides”. The discussion around this matter, and the way it is conducted in the film, will continue to engage as long as this field is still in development.
The film is being screened at BIFF in Bergen from September 26th until October 4th.