Crime-tracking data poorly traced, report says

Los Angeles Police Chief Michel Moore
Los Angeles Police Chief Michel Moore
By Wave Newspapers

LOS ANGELES — Some Los Angeles Police Department programs that analyze data to predict where crimes may occur and identify “chronic offenders” need more oversight and have been inconsistently implemented, according to a report presented to the Police Commission March 12.

The LAPD uses a number of predictive programs to focus crime-fighting efforts in certain neighborhoods and on specific chronic offenders by analyzing data, including the LASER program and PrepPol. Both programs began in 2011 and have been criticized by some civil-rights advocates who claim they can lead to discrimination against minority groups.

In his report to the commission, LAPD Inspector General Mark Smith found that despite the fact the programs are data-driven, the information was sometimes poorly tracked and documented.

Smith said the primary finding of the report “unfortunately is that these programs lack some consistency in how they are being used throughout the department, how data was being tracked across the department.”

As to the Chronic Offender program, Smith’s report said “the format of the available data made it difficult, in some cases, to determine which activities were being conducted as the result of the program, and to assess the program’s overall impact.”

The commission did not take any direct action on the report, pending a two-week public comment period.

LASER is designed to inform officers where crimes are likely to occur and tracks ex-convicts and people they believe are most likely to commit crimes through technology, including cell phone trackers and license plate scanners.

By using data, including whether a person is a parolee or has ever been arrested, the LASER program generates a Chronic Offender Bulletin, which lists people the data says are most likely to commit a crime, even though they are not suspected in any specific crime.

The PredPol — short for “predictive policing” — program analyzes data about when and where crimes have occurred to identify “hot spots” in the city where certain types of crimes are more likely to be committed on a given day.

The Chronic Offender portion of the LASER program was suspended in August 2018, along with the use of the associated tracking database, according to the report. That same month, the commission held a public hearing on the programs and invited some of its harshest critics to give formal presentations on their opposition to them.

Although the LAPD has said race is not used directly in the data, members of the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition argued at the August meeting and again this week that certain information such as parolee data and gang member identification allows the LAPD to racially profile using “proxy” data, because Latinos and blacks represent a high percentage of those tracked groups.

The end result, the groups argue, is the justification of using data to discriminate against minority groups. Smith’s report found that the overall racial makeup of individuals labeled in the chronic offender program are comparable to the demographics of those arrested for violent crimes in the city.

“What we are talking about is a language that reduces people to data-driven policing,” Hamid Khan of the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition told the commission. “It goes back to plantation capitalism, and remains plantation capitalism. People are numbers, people are statistics.”

The meeting came less than a year after LAPD Chief Michel Moore was sworn into office. During his career, Moore has been considered one of the department’s top experts on using data and analyzing crime statistics, but he said he welcomed the recommendations in the report.

“I’m thankful that this report has come today. Fundamentally, I believe that data-driven strategies improve policing, and that improves community safety,” Moore said. “What’s critical in that is that we recognize that the systems have to be thoughtful and they have to recognize that there’s a limit to what data can do.”

Moore said the department suspended the Chronic Offender program due to the public criticism, and in his view, there were “too many inconsistencies and raising too many concerns relative to civil rights advocates and members of the community that to let that continue unabated was counter to public trust.”

The report found that the majority of people identified as chronic offenders had few, if any, actual contacts with the police, who often reported that they attempted to locate the designated person but could not find them.

As to the predictive policing programs on locations and communities, the report found in most cases the amount of time spent in these areas appeared to be “relatively limited.” The report did note “a small proportion of events involving long durations or repeated visits. Based on the available information, it was generally not clear whether these visits were driven by the underlying program, or whether they were the result of other department activities or strategies.”

If the department were to again use a person-based strategy like the Chronic Offender program, “more rigorous parameters about the selection of people, as well as the tracking of data, should allow for a better assessment of these issues,” the report said.

For the location-based strategies, among the recommendations in the report is that the LAPD establish formal written guidelines that specify how areas are identified in the programs, when to conduct assessments of the zones, and what strategies and activities are to be taken at the locations.

The report also recommended that the LAPD develop a system for regular reporting of basic usage and outcome data on the programs to the commission and the public, look for opportunities to obtain independent evaluations and consider seeking community and commission input prior to the implementation of any new data-driven policing strategies or any significant revisions to the current data-driven programs.

This article originally appeared in the Wave Newspapers
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