The Los Angeles Police Department pioneered the controversial use of data to pinpoint crime hot spots and track violent offenders.
Complex algorithms and vast databases were supposed to revolutionize crime fighting, making policing more efficient as number-crunching computers helped to position scarce resources.
But critics long complained about inherent bias in the data — gathered by officers — that underpinned the tools.
They claimed a partial victory when LAPD Chief Michel Moore announced he would end one highly touted program intended to identify and monitor violent criminals. On Tuesday, the department’s civilian oversight panel raised questions about whether another program, aimed at reducing property crime, also disproportionately targets black and Latino communities.
Members of the Police Commission demanded more information about how the agency plans to overhaul a data program that helps predict where and when crimes will likely occur. One questioned why the program couldn’t be suspended.
“There is very limited information” on the program’s impact, Commissioner Shane Murphy Goldsmith said.
The action came as so-called predictive policing— using search tools, point scores and other methods — is under increasing scrutiny by privacy and civil liberties groups that say the tactics result in heavier policing of black and Latino communities. The argument was underscored at Tuesday’s commission meeting when several UCLA academics cast doubt on the research behind crime modeling and predictive policing.
Last week, the group of 68 UCLA professors and graduate students signed a letter to commissioners raising concerns about PredPol, the technology company partially developed by UCLA anthropology professor P. Jeffrey Brantingham.
There is no “universal agreement or acceptance of the empirical merit and the ethics” of the research upon which the policing program is based, the letter stated, adding that it reflected “some of the most troubling legacies of the discipline of anthropology and of social science more generally.”
In a statement, Brantingham said: “UCLA provides a great environment to conduct research because it represents a diversity of opinion and encourages vigorous debate. It’s clear that we share the same passion for finding fair and effective solutions that help keep communities safe.”
The PredPol software used by the LAPD is designed to predict where and when crimes will likely occur over the next 12 hours. The software’s algorithm examines 10 years of data, including the types of crimes, dates, locations and times.
As commissioners debated the data program for three hours, activists repeatedly shouted, “Shut it down.”
Last month, an audit by Inspector General Mark Smith found the data programs lacked oversight and that officers used inconsistent criteria to label people who were likely to commit violent crime. Moore ended that component.
Smith also said there was insufficient data to determine if PredPol helped to reduce property crimes.
But Goldsmith and fellow Commissioners Dale Bonner and Eileen Decker faulted the audit for not providing more details about the location-based program.
They questioned its effectiveness and wanted specifics on how future results would be measured and released to the public. They also asked Moore to provide details on training and how the agency would monitor against possible abuses of targeting black and brown communities
Department officials plan to meet with a commission subcommittee to provide more details.
Bonner asked Moore why the agency could not suspend the program until it develops a “formalized” plan and resolves all problems.
Moore insisted the program is needed to fight crime.
“To abort this because of criticism in this room is an overreaction,” Moore said, adding the agency is trying to build community trust around the program.
“It’s almost like working on the car as you’re driving down the freeway,” Bonner replied. Moore disputed the notion.
The department is working to develop “precision policing” manuals tailored to its four geographic commands and will incorporate the inspector general’s recommendations into them, Moore said.
To improve accountability, Moore tasked Deputy Chief Robert Arcos, who heads the Office of Operations, to oversee the program. Arcos told commissioners that he and other police leaders are committed to making the program successful and transparent.
After the audit was released last month, the public had two weeks to offer input. Smith said he received 819 responses. Many used similar language urging that the programs end. Still, activists pointed out that no responses supported keeping the program.
“The community is completely unified in the opposition,” one woman told commissioners.
When the commission declined to approve the department’s path forward to use predictive policing — instead requesting more information on its usefulness in stemming property crimes — activists stood and chanted in solidarity. Commission President Steve Soboroff recessed the meeting until calm could be restored.
Seven UCLA professors and graduate students spoke, urging commissioners to stop the LAPD from using PredPol because it inflicts harm on the city’s poorest residents.
“It’s a predatory policing program that should be dismissed and dismantled,” professor Jemima Pierre told commissioners.
Another criticized Smith for not disclosing that two academic studies cited in the audit were completed by Brantingham.
“It shouldn’t be evaluated by the person who created it,” professor Jessica Cattelino said.
Moore said the department is open to more examination of the program and would make changes if irregularities surface. He credited the program for helping lower crime rates in recent years.
The agency’s primary goal, he said, is to keep the city safe, not apprehend people. He said he understands the concerns about racial biases, but said officers work daily to build community trust.
“We will continue to work with all our communities,” Moore said, adding the department will also seek more research on data policing.