On a warm Los Angeles morning, community activists gathered outside the Los Angeles Police Department headquarters to protest data-driven policing. Jamie Garcia, a volunteer advocate with the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition — a group that has sounded the alarm on the LAPD's use of predictive policing for almost a decade — told the crowd it's just the latest chapter in a troubling history.
"There was Jim Crow, segregation, Broken Windows, CompStat, and now we're in the era of data-driven, precision-based policing," Garcia said. "Yet it remains the same, the banishment of black and brown and poor people."
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The LAPD, the nation's third-largest police force and one of the first to employ this technology, is often credited with pioneering data-driven policing programs that are now used across the country. In 2011, the LAPD rolled out a predictive policing program called Los Angeles Strategic Extraction and Restoration (LASER).
"So the LASER program was designed on the metaphor that they were going to, like laser surgery, remove the tumors, the bad actors from the community," explains Andrew Ferguson, a law professor and predictive policing expert. "That idea, offensive as it is, was an idea of using some kind of algorithm to identify risk."
LASER was originally created to target individuals most likely to commit a violent crime based on personal criminal histories. In order to rank the risk of those known as "chronic offenders" within the LASER system, points were assigned based on factors like gang membership, violent crimes committed, and so-called "quality" interactions with police. Individuals with sufficient points were then put on a chronic offenders bulletin, which were disseminated to officers in the department.
Critics say the LASER program's configuration set up people designated as "chronic offenders" for failure. "Every field interview card that gets filled out on you, you get a point. So the more often you're stopped by law enforcement and they fill out a field interview card on you, the more points you get," says Garcia. "They claim you can get off the list if you don't have interactions with law enforcement, but if the instruction for law enforcement is to find you, follow you, stop you, violate you, how are you ever going to get off the list?"
Out of concern for community members who may have been unfairly targeted by LASER, the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition submitted California Public Records requests in 2017 and 2018 to push the LAPD to disclose information about the program, and followed up with a lawsuit against the LAPD in 2018 when their requests went largely ignored. Under pressure, the LAPD began to slowly release the records.
According to Garcia, the Coalition has received hundreds of documents from LAPD, including maps and mission sheets from the LASER program, but their November 2018 public records request has yet to be fulfilled. "LAPD is still responsible for the release of more LASER Zone maps, producing the policy and procedure around the creation of LASER Zones, emails communications and much more," she stated. After some records were released, the LAPD Inspector General conducted an internal audit of LASER in early 2019, and many of the community members' fears were validated. It revealed significant inconsistencies in how individuals were selected and retained in LASER. Almost half of the "chronic offenders" had zero or one arrest for a violent crime, and almost 10% had no "quality interactions" with police. The review also found Latinos and African Americans made up 84% of the 233 "active" chronic offenders, but did not note it as an overrepresentation because the figures were similar to the racial breakdown of violent crime arrests between 2012 and 2018.
Nonetheless, in a rare reversal for the department, the LAPD shut down LASER.
Still, during the Inspector General's presentation of the audit's findings in March 2019, Police Chief Michel Moore made LAPD's commitment to data-based policing clear.
"Fundamentally, I believe that data-driven strategies improve policing, and that improves community safety," he said. LAPD continues to use another location-based predictive policing program called PredPol, even after the audit found discrepancies with the program's data collection and its efficacy couldn't be determined.
For Ferguson, not enough has been done to fix the problem with predictive policing in L.A. "Well, I'm somewhat of a cynic, because I'm not sure that the real lesson of that audit was taken," he said. "Because the real lesson of that audit would be to bring in people who are impacted by this technology into that room before you decide the next one."
But the LAPD says strides are being made. The LAPD did not grant an interview but provided a statement that said, in part:
"The [LASER] Chronic Offender based program is no longer in use. The LAPD is moving to a Data-Driven - Community Focused model of building trust and reducing crime built on three goals: Increase trust between police and public, reduce violent crime … specifically, gun and gang-related crime, and assist victims of crime, including businesses, residents, and those most vulnerable to crime and disorder."
Garcia acknowledges that ending LASER and bringing greater transparency to predictive policing is a victory for Stop LAPD Spying Coalition. She said, "It may be science, it may be an algorithm, it may be saying something fancy, but it's the same policing that's always existed, and that was the victory."
But she also recognizes that the fight isn't over. "What we're doing is showing that we see through it all, and we're fighting it back, and we'll continue to fight it back."