Data, Crime and Punishment: The story of Jack Maple

Updated: Jul 4, 2020

Let me start this post on crime with a confession – I’m taking a break from coding my data (and I feel so guilty about it!). I did buy some snazzy new post-it notes and I hope to break them out soon but for now...

I’m using this time to do some additional background research and thinking about the role of technology in social systems, who designs technology, who uses it and how ethical issues arise.

All of this will come in handy when I start to write my findings and discussion chapter – at least that’s what I’m telling myself. One of my recent research diversions was watching the keynote address from Ruha Benjamin at the recent ICLR conference. It’s fantastic! If you want to understand how issues of race and racism are systematically embedded in technology, it’s a must see.

I’ve been thinking on an off about the role of technology in policing. Professor Benjamin’s talk reminded me of a story I heard on (the excellent!) Reply All podcast a few years ago about a transit cop named Jack Maple. Maple pioneered one of the first data driven policing models called CompStat, short for Compare Statistics.

CompStat was widely deployed in NYC by the Guiliani administration and is credited with drastically reducing crime. Yet, more than an actual program, CompStat was a philosophy that used data in the form of mapping crime statistics as a means of determining hot spots and patterns, allowing police to manage to the data. That resulted in some disturbing consequences and direct ties to what we are seeing today in policing, but I’m getting ahead of the story…

Back in the 1970s and 80s NYC had a massive problem with crime with as many as five or six homicides a day. Enter Jack Maple. Maple was a young transit cop, which as you might imagine was not a glamorous or well-respected beat (and yes, there is a value judgement here that is relevant). Jack Maple is a maverick. The podcast describes him “an idealistic, grouchy, smart, weirdo”. (Reply All, 2019) He fashions himself as a Joe Friday, Dragnet style crime-fighter. He’s frustrated by a slow-moving bureaucracy and bosses who repeatedly tell him to stay in his lane and just take care of transit matters - to leave the other policing alone.

However, Jack Maple can’t leave it alone. He's ambitious and he wants to be taken seriously. Some think this stemmed back to a near death experience he had as a newbie cop where he was almost shot on the job. In any case, he’s constantly getting in trouble with bosses for overstepping his boundaries. During the 1980s, the subways in NYC are a dangerous place with commuters being attacked by gangs. Maple starts to see that there is a pattern in how the crimes are taking place, but he doesn’t have any proof to back up his thinking.

One day, Maple decides he’s going to start generating the data he needs.

He starts by literally taping paper to the walls of his office and drawing out the subway stations. Then, he takes all the print outs of crime statistics and starts to map them in a process he calls Charts of the Future. For example - “4am, Times Square, purse snatching” – a pink dot, “6pm – Lexington, mugging” – a pink dot etc I’m sure he would have used post-it notes had they been invented. The data visualization was huge – it clearly spelled out what was happening and where.

I’ve already given you the spoiler – the data-driven approach worked. Maple’s methods were widely adopted and enhanced by technology. Police departments start managing to the statistics.

However, there was another side to this story. Policing by the numbers led to many unjust practices like "stop and frisk" that caused great harm. People of colour, especially Black men, were disproportionately targeted. In the past 40 years, the philosophy that Maple pioneered has been upgraded and perfected. We’re now seeing the fall out of optimizing for crime statistics and not seeing crime itself as the result of more complex social issues that needed to be addressed.

One local example of this line of thinking is SafeCityYEG a website and app that was rolled out last year as part of Edmonton’s Safe City* initiative. The site/app is a modern version of Maple’s Charts of the Future, crowdsourcing virtual pushpins into a map to show areas where people in Edmonton feel unsafe. It’s part of the City’s commitment to United Nation’s Women Safe Cities which is an incredibly worthwhile initiative. However, I question whether the potential benefits of deploying this technology is worth the potential harms. For me, it is fraught with the same issues baked into Maple’s approach. This initiative was rolled out as a one year pilot last July. Given our current political climate, I wonder what will become of it.

"Technology can hide the ongoing nature of social domination". - Ruha Benjamin

The story of Jack Maple is part of a bigger story and world-view of "techno-solutioning" which holds technology as the key to solving our problems. Technology can be useful, but we need to constantly be assessing it from a socio-cultural standpoint and asking questions about who it's working for and for whom it's not working. Even initiatives that are incredibly well intended can have the potential to cause harm. As Ruha Benjamin asserts when it comes to the design of technology "most people are forced to live inside someone else’s imagination".

I agree and I think data-driven policing may very well have it’s roots in the imagination of a transit cop named Jack Maple.**


*bit of an aside, but I found it odd that two members of the Edmonton Safe City task force were from Uber. In thinking about agenda setting, I wondered what they stood to benefit by being involved. Also, since then, Uber has been fined millions for sexual harassment – so, not exactly the model of a corporate culture that supports women’s safety!

**I’m writing this on Canada Day….so, yes, Maple!

The Crime Machine is a two part-episode on the Reply All podcast I highly recommend you check it out – it’s so well done.

Ruha Benjamin’s website and her ICLR talk

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