IF YOU’VE EVER been incarcerated, it’s never easy to escape your past. In Los Angeles, it may be even harder.
The Los Angeles Police Department is one of dozens of cities across the country that’s trying to predict where crime will happen—and who those future criminals will be—based on past crime and arrest data. One effort, known as Operation LASER, which began in 2011, crunches information about past offenders over a two-year period, using technology developed by the shadowy data analysis firm Palantir, and scores individuals based on their rap sheets. If you’ve ever been in a gang, that’s five points. If you’re on parole or probation? Another five. Every time you’re stopped by police, every time they come knocking on your door, that could land you more points. The higher the points, the more likely you are to end up on something called the Chronic Offender Bulletin, a list of people the data says are most at risk of reoffending and ought to be kept on close watch.
The city says this so-called “predictive policing” approach can help the department efficiently target resources and help reduce crime. But civil rights advocates worry that all this fancy technology is just a glossy veneer on old-school racial profiling.
“The algorithm is always going to augment the system it’s in, and if the system is biased, is unjust, then the algorithm is going to replicate that,” says Jamie Garcia, a volunteer with the advocacy group Stop LAPD Spying Coalition. The group recently published never-before-seen documentsabout how the LASER program works, after filing a lawsuit against the LAPD. That suit is still ongoing as the group pushes for even more transparency.