Palantir Presentations Show How The LAPD Is Able To Turn Tons Of Garbage Data Into Ineffective Policing
from the money-for-nothing dept
Palantir is raking in millions. It’s your surveillance provider, whether you — the valued
customer target — had any say in the matter or not. Data comes in from all over and Palantir helps law enforcement make sense of it. Haystacks are useless. “Drilling down” — to use official Palantir parlance — is everything. Whether it’s ICE or your local PD, Palantir is turning data into arrests… or at least stops/frisks and low-level harassment.
Palantir gives law enforcement something roughly aligned with predictive policing. Predictive policing has given itself a bad name over the years by relying on dirty data supplied by cops who target minorities under the bigoted assumption that that’s where the crime is. Palantir doesn’t use that term but its analytics provide the same outcome: garbage results from garbage data.
And there’s oh so much data. Everything cops own gets fed into the system: millions of license plate photos from ALPRs, every piece of detritus generated by police reports, gang databases that think residents are gang members because they happen to live in gang territory, etc. And it adds in everything else: state license plate databases, regional crime center reports, the bullshit crafted by DHS-led “fusion centers.” Everything goes in and Palantir helps craft what comes out.
Documents obtained by BuzzFeed show how much crafting Palantir does and how much minute detail its software allows officers to fiddle with. It’s not cheap, but agencies like the Los Angeles Police Department feel it’s worth it.
Palantir is expensive, and police departments often struggle to afford it. Between 2015 and 2016, the LA Mayor’s Office of Public Safety got the money to pay for Palantir from the federal government — specifically, from the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Urban Areas Security Initiative (UASI) Program, which gives cities technology to “prevent, protect against, mitigate, respond to, and recover from acts of terrorism.”
It’s unclear if the LAPD always used federal UASI money to pay for Palantir, or if it only used federal money in those years. But purchase orders show that Palantir software upgrades and user licenses cost hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars.
Do law enforcement agencies get what they pay for? Well, that depends on who you ask. The LAPD thinks it’s a sound investment. Critics say it’s nothing more than the public paying their public servants to spy on them in granular detail. Whatever it is, it’s profitable for Palantir and very, very popular within the LAPD.
Palantir is no small thing within the LAPD. Almost 5,000 people, more than half of all LAPD officers had accounts on Palantir, according to an “LAPD Palantir Usage Metrics” document. The same document says that in 2016, those officers ran 60,000 searches in support of more than 10,000 cases.
Starting with little more than an alias or a distinctive tattoo, LAPD officers can begin rebuilding a person’s life as compiled by the Department’s numerous data inputs. Searching by sex, race, and distinctive markings, officers running searches can access names, email addresses, warrants, mugshots, physical addresses, personal relationships, employers, and anything else that may get swept into the mix.
Here’s a very broad overview of how it works:
For the LAPD, Palantir swallowed up the contents of several major databases that were previously spread across public safety agencies throughout Los Angeles and the state, including incident reports, arrests, citations, license plate reader data, field interviews, recovered vehicles, warrants, booking photos, and data from the California Law Enforcement Telecommunications System, and the county’s Community Health Services data. Palantir algorithmically organizes this data, determining possible links between the people within it (e.g., “Sally was interviewed by police in a report about Fred”) and makes it searchable.
But is all this data getting the job done? The LAPD has been using Palantir’s software for more than a decade. The Department killed off its predictive policing software earlier this year, citing its cost. But it could have just as easily cited its inability to do much more than subject overly-harassed residents to more harassment by mistaking past crime results for future criminal activity.
What about Palantir? Its decade at the LAPD doesn’t appear to have had much of an impact. Violent crime rates in 2019 are about the same as they were in 2009. While homicide and robbery have declined slightly, aggravated assault has increased. (So have the number of rapes reported, but that may have more to do with more rape victims coming forward than an increase in rapes.) The numbers for non-violent crime are better, with big reductions in burglary and vehicle thefts.
But the Palantir-enabled LASER (Los Angeles Strategic Extraction and Restoration) program doesn’t appear to have done anything a system utilizing less always-on surveillance could have accomplished. Garbage data gave cops garbage to work with, resulting in a lot of attention being paid to people who weren’t causing any problems.
Out of the 637 Chronic Offenders identified by the LAPD, 44% were never arrested for a violent or gun-related crime, despite LASER’s attempt to target violent crime. And 10% of Chronic Offenders had zero contacts with police — meaning zero arrests and zero mentions in field interviews. Per LASER’s guidelines, 100% of Chronic Offenders should have already been arrested for a violent crime.
It also couldn’t find evidence that LASER reduced crime. The report said that in 6 out of the 13 LASER Zones, violent crime rates were “the same as, or worse than, those for non-LASER Zones.”
LASER is now dead, thanks to budget issues, COVID-19, and an oversight report the LAPD couldn’t credibly contradict. But LASER is still very much alive, doing business under a less memorable name. And it’s still powered by Palantir. It’s called “Data-Informed, Community-Focused Policing.” It sounds friendly, but it’s worse than its predecessor.
The new plan formally expands the surveillance that began under LASER. Under LASER, the LAPD said people who were arrested for violent or gun-related crimes could be surveilled. Now, people suspected of nonviolent property crimes can also be.
And for being cutting edge, it clings to some really old fashioned ideas. The presentation for the new LASER says crime can be prevented by “physical maintenance and general upkeep” of property. Broken windows policing is back. And it’s got a shiny, high-tech sheen thanks to Palantir.