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How “dirty data” from civil rights violations leads to bad predictive policing

A new report investigates how 13 jurisdictions, including Chicago and New Orleans, were feeding systems data sullied by “unconstitutional and racially biased stops, searches, and arrests.”

How “dirty data” from civil rights violations leads to bad predictive policing
[Photo: Flickr user saturnism]

In March 2015, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Illinois published a report on the Chicago Police Department’s (CPD) stop and frisk practices. After looking at records from 2012, 2013, and four months of contact card data from 2014, ACLU of Illinois concluded that many CPD stop and frisks were unlawful, and that black residents were disproportionately targeted. The report also noted deficiencies in CPD’s data and data collection practices, which were, alongside other practices and procedures, to be independently monitored as part of an August 2015 settlement agreement.

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But the ACLU wasn’t alone in its findings about CPD data policies. A yearlong U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) investigation into the fatal shooting of Laquan McDonald found a pattern of poor data collection to identify and address unlawful conduct, among other issues. All the while, CPD had been using its own predictive policing system, which has existed in some form since at least 2012. Funded by a DOJ grant and developed by the Illinois Institute of Technology, the Strategic Subject List (SSL) is an automated assessment tool that uses a number of data sets to analyze crime, as well as identify and rank individuals as at risk of becoming a victim or offender in a shooting or homicide. A 2017 Freedom of Information Act request revealed that the data set included 398,684 individuals, with much of the information having to do with arrests, not convictions–just one of many types of information that can warp SSL’s automated assessments.

Chicago, the report’s first case study, is of particular interest in the predictive policing debate. The city’s example is also included in a new report published by AI Now–an interdisciplinary research center at New York University focused on the social implications of artificial intelligence–about “dirty data” from civil rights violations leading to bad predictive policing.

The report, published last week, investigates how 13 jurisdictions that had used, were using, or planned to implement predictive policing systems were feeding these systems data sullied by “unconstitutional and racially biased stops, searches, and arrests,” as well as excessive use of force and first amendment violations, among other issues. The jurisdictions, which included New Orleans; Maricopa County, Arizona; Milwaukee; and other cities, had all entered into notable consent decrees (settlements between two parties) with the Department of Justice, or some other federal court-monitored settlements for “corrupt, racially biased, or otherwise illegal policing practices.”

The automated tools used by public agencies to make decisions in criminal justice, healthcare, and education are often acquired and developed in the shadows. However, activists, lawyers, and lawmakers are working to raise awareness about these algorithms, with a major effort currently under way in the state of Washington, where legislators are now debating an algorithmic accountability bill that would establish transparency guidelines. But one area in the debate that hasn’t received a great deal of attention is the “dirty data” used by predictive policing systems.

The report notes that police data can be biased in two distinct ways. First, police data reflects police practices and policies, and “if a group or geographic area is “disproportionately targeted for unjustified police contacts and actions, this group or area will be overrepresented in the data, in ways that often suggest greater criminality.” Another type of bias occurs when police departments and predictive policing systems tend to focus on “violent, street, property, and quality-of-life crimes,” while white-collar crimes–which some studies suggest occur with higher frequency than the aforementioned crimes–remain “comparatively under-investigated and overlooked in crime reporting.”

Rashida Richardson, director of policy research at AI Now, tells Fast Company that it was relatively easy to find public records of police misconduct in the targeted jurisdictions. However, information regarding police data sharing practices–what data and with which other jurisdictions it is shared, as well as information on predictive policing systems–were more difficult to find. Other instances existed where evidence was inconclusive about a direct link between policing practices and the data used in the predictive policing system.

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“We didn’t have to do [Freedom of Information Act requests] or any formal public records requests,” says Richardson. “Part of the methodology was trying to rely on strictly what was already publicly available because the theory is that this is the type of information that the public should already have access to.”

“In some jurisdictions that have more recent consent decrees–those being Milwaukee, Baltimore, and Chicago–it’s a little bit harder because there is a lack of public information,” she adds. “A lot of the predictive policing pilots or use cases are often funded through federal dollars, so there were sometimes records through the DOJ that they provided a grant to the jurisdiction, but then no other documentation on the local level about how that money was used.”

Richardson says that HunchLab and PredPol are the two most common predictive policing systems of the 13 jurisdictions. IBM and Motorola also offer some type of predictive policing systems, while other jurisdictions develop their own in-house. It’s currently unknown how pervasive these automated systems are in the United States.

Richardson says that part of the reason for this is a lack of transparency around the acquisition and development of these technologies by jurisdictions. Many such systems are acquired or developed outside of the normal procurement process; that is, from federal or third-party grants from the likes of police organizations or nongovernment organizations with an interest in law enforcement. In New Orleans, for example, Palantir gave the [predictive policing] system as an in-kind gift to the police department.

“It didn’t go through the legislative process,” says Richardson. “It’s only due to some litigation and investigative journalism that we have some sort of a grasp about how common it is.”

For there to be unbiased predictive policing systems, Richardson says there must be reform of both policing and the criminal justice system. Otherwise, it will continue to be difficult to trust that information coming from what she calls a “broken system” can be implemented in a nondiscriminatory way.

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“One day in the future, it may be possible to use this type of technology in a way that would not produce discriminatory outcomes,” says Richardson. “But the problem is that there are so many embedded problems within policing and, more broadly, within criminal justice that it would take a lot of fundamental changes, not only within data practices but also how these systems are implemented for there to be a fair outcome.”

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About the author

DJ Pangburn is a writer and editor with bylines at Vice, Motherboard, Creators, Dazed & Confused and The Quietus. He's also a pataphysician, psychogeographer and filmmaker.

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