Edward Alexander guest writes. He is a Bellingham lawyer and a board member of Whatcom Peace and Justice.
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Typically, the city would be required to go through a deliberation process asking, “What is it that we want to accomplish?” Then, a Request for Proposal is published, stating the objectives they hope the software can help the city achieve. The community would have the opportunity to scrutinize the objectives and provide input. Ultimately, bids are submitted explaining how various products can accomplish the objectives. But because their funding came through a federal grant, the normal, transparent, public, Request for Proposal process could be side stepped. In order to provide a modicum of transparency, or at least the appearance of transparency, the federal grant does require cities to hold a public hearing.
In 2014, a Bellingham City Council hearing was scheduled to consider acquiring the Intrado software. With only a few days’ notice, several people showed up at the hearing. The community’s questions were many; the information provided by the city regarding Intrado Beware software was scant. Community members asked for more time to study the software. A couple weeks later, many showed up stating their concerns. Although the council was not required to approve or disapprove the acquisition, it voted to direct the Bellingham Police Department not to pursue the software. The police chief stated that he would not.
Then in 2015, another LexisNexis company, Bair, obtained a Bureau of Justice Grant for Predictive Policing Software. The Bair software offers to predict the time and place crime will occur. Once again, scant information was provided by the BPD prior to a hearing held on August 10, 2014. And once again, notice was very short. The agenda read, “Consideration of an Application for a Bureau of Justice Grant in the Amount of $21,213.” By clicking on the link, you can read a “Notice of Opportunity for Public Comment,” describing the software. “Using three data points – past type, place and time of crime and a unique algorithm based on criminal behavior patterns, this software provides each law enforcement agency with customized crime predictions for the places and times that crimes are most likely to occur.” At the hearing, the police chief explained that the Rand Corporation had studied software like this and indicated it was effective.
Again, as in 2014, no City Council vote was required, and no Request for Proposal was submitted to the public. At the August 10, 2015 hearing, concerned community members stated they were very concerned about this software. They wanted more information regarding how the software makes predictions and what LexisNexis would do with our information. People of color as well as whites stated concerns about racial profiling. People of color were concerned the software could legitimize racial profiling and asked for the opportunity to give input regarding historic and ongoing racial profiling. They expressed concern that the software would target neighborhoods with people of color for additional police action. Citing Bellingham’s commitment to community policing, they asked to be consulted before the software was implemented.
This time the council declined to vote. Council members cited “confusion” regarding the software, and declared the BPD has done a fine job thus far. The mayor is free to go ahead with the acquisition of the LexisNexis software. A Bellingham company that creates software used by police around the world says it is disappointed at not having been given the opportunity to understand the policing objectives and submit a proposal.
Still, questions remain: Do the Rand Corporation and Lexis-Nexis have Bellingham’s best interests at heart? Who are they? What is their agenda? Has Bellingham done its homework in setting its own agenda regarding law enforcement goals and priorities? Are big data, and big defense contractors setting our agenda for us? Is the tail wagging the dog? Sidestepping the Request for Proposal process makes it difficult to answer these questions before Bellingham moves forward.
But just for a start, here are some tidbits from 10 minutes of online research:
LexisNexis, “[t]he document search company is offering a new data forensics service staffed by former federal agents. . .” “LexisNexis has already offered e-discovery services for years, but this week, the company launched a more intensive level of data collection service, which it calls the Data Collection and Forensic Services Lab, at its headquarters.” ComputerWeekly.com 2007 article.
Rand Corporation: McDonnell Douglas’s predecessor, Douglas Aircraft Company “established a United States Army Air Forces think-tank, a group that would later become known as the Rand Corporation.” Now “[t]he largest defense contractor in the United States, McDonnell Douglas Corporation is also the world’s largest builder of military aircraft, the third largest commercial aircraft maker in the world, and the third largest NASA contractor.” JRank.org, no date.