30,000 Cameras Can't Be Wrong: Chicago Banks On Surveillance To Solve Violence Problem
from the here's-looking-at-you,-Chicago-[unblinking-eye-pans-to-follow-passing-citize dept
Chicago’s gun violence rate — now in the midst of a long period of decline, never mind what the Attorney General and President say in public statements/tweet — has been a concern for a few years now. The DOJ, before being chased away from policing the police by Jeff Sessions, noted the PD had destroyed its relationship with city residents with unconstitutional policing and an antagonistic attitude. A couple of high-profile shootings of Chicago residents by police officers did nothing to help.
Chicago is the poster child for violent crime, despite its rate of crime being lower than under-the-radar cities like Ft. Worth, Memphis, and Houston. This had led to all sorts of solutions being suggested, including the return of unconstitutional policing (Attorney General), sending in the troops (President Trump), and a sharp uptick in surveillance (the Chicago PD).
The New York Times covers the city’s surveillance expansion under the headline “Can 30,000 Cameras Help Solve Chicago’s Crime Problem?” The answer is unclear, despite the many glowing reviews of the city’s camera network delivered by law enforcement officers and officials. The subhed — “But what does it mean for residents’ privacy?” — is barely discussed.
The network Chicago is deploying involves thousands of hi-def cameras, automatic license plate readers, mugshot databases, and predictive policing software. That the system went online roughly about the time homicide numbers began to decline has prompted praise — perhaps unearned — for the system’s ability to rid the city of its violent crime problem.
The department tested the use of technology in two of its most violent areas in early 2017. When crime began to fall, the department ultimately set aside space in 13 of its 22 police stations for the surveillance centers, which tap into the city’s approximately 30,000 government-operated closed-circuit cameras.
Inside, civilian crime analysts from the University of Chicago Crime Lab — self-described “nerds” who are often learning data science on the fly — and uniformed officers work side by side at computer terminals, scrutinizing crime data as they search for trends.
Much of the technology is similar to equipment used by dozens of police departments around the nation: sensors to detect the location of gunshots, software designed to predict the time and location of crimes and license plate readers that photograph thousands of plates per minute.
Cops like the system. It provides a wealth of information, starting with location of reported gunshots and working from there to bring up arrest records of people in the area and vehicle locations of suspects. Fun stuff for cops. Not so much for the thousands of innocent people who live in heavily-surveilled areas. Predictive policing software’s track record isn’t much better than facial recognition AI. Both have a tendency to generate false positives, but predictive policing allows cops to conjure reasonable suspicion out of ambient temperature, moon stages, and someone’s proximity to known criminals. You may think I’m being facetious, but here’s the receipt.
The civilian analysts spend much of their time feeding a range of information into software called HunchLab, which considers a number of variables — from gang tensions and gunshot reports to the number of parolees living in an area — to forecast crime by giving probability scores, much like a meteorological report.
HunchLab also examines less obvious data points, like the location of liquor stores and schools, an area’s proximity to local expressways, and even weather conditions and phases of the moon (there is more crime during full moons; no one knows why).
In reality, it seems to do little more than shore up preconceived notions. This is what may have gotten the city into the mess in the first place. And the DOJ’s inability to move forward with investigations of police forces means the PD may never have to answer fully for its unconstitutional behavior. What residents are getting instead of better police officers and policies is a massive surveillance network — one deployed with almost zero public comment or oversight. Some transparency has been put in place, but only after the system has been fully deployed, and it largely consists of invitations to community leaders to tour local “strategic centers” to look at the people looking at screens showing images of their friends and neighbors.
As local activist Kofi Ademola puts it, residents weren’t asked about the new system. They were simply told this was the way forward.
“There was not a conversation like, ‘Do you want this in your community?’ ” he said. “Instead, the Chicago police say, ‘This is in your community and it is going to cut crime,’ and unfortunately, people don’t question that. It’s now been normalized for these communities to be under constant surveillance, which contributes to the criminalization of people. It is problematic.”
The situation is unlikely to change. It won’t be scaled back, even if current crime rate declines plateau. To its proponents, it’s the only explanation for the decline in violence. Efforts have been made to overhaul stop-and-frisk policies, which may have helped community relations, but there’s no weight backing it up or codifying the changes. The DOJ isn’t going to step in and demand permanent changes and city officials have taken heat from law enforcement reps for the minimal corrective efforts they have managed to put in place.
Sure, the system may do some good, but at what societal cost? Will certain residents just assume their lives will be documented and stored in law enforcement databases so long as they live or work in certain neighborhoods? Will guilt by association increase the number of interactions with law enforcement just because they have the misfortune to live in gang territory or a few houses away from recently-released felons? Those are questions that no one can answer with anything but “yes” at this point. The police feel this is an acceptable tradeoff: lower crime for 24-hour surveillance. Those being surveilled have been given no say in the matter.