Predictive Policing Comes to Bellingham

Is the tail wagging the dog? Edward Alexander guest writes on why predictive software for our police needs basic questions answered before purchase.

Is the tail wagging the dog? Edward Alexander guest writes on why predictive software for our police needs basic questions answered before purchase.

• Topics: Bellingham, Law & Justice,

Edward Alexander guest writes.  He is a Bellingham lawyer and a board member of Whatcom Peace and Justice.  

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In 2014, Motorola, partnering with LexisNexis, obtained funding for a federal grant allowing communities to use their law enforcement software, Intrado Beware.  The gist of this software is that each community member would be assigned a threat score, based on the information available from data brokers and public sources, including whom we associate with, and things we have said.  Data brokers obtain information from a variety of means: when internet users click “I agree” to an app’s terms of use, when they use Facebook, and from undisclosed internet sources (likely including the tracking cookies they frequently, and unwittingly download when they use the internet).

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.” 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.”, no date.

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About Guest Writer

Citizen Journalist • Member since Jun 15, 2008

Since 2008, this moniker has been used over 130 times on articles written by guest writers who may write once or very occasionally for Northwest Citizen, but not regularly.

Comments by Readers

Carol Follett

Aug 22, 2015

looking at the fact that our military appears to behave as though it is separate from the people, expanding military ranges to include three vast areas in our state, endangering civilians and forest creatures alike (local-retired-librarian-injured-by-police), militarizing the police with equipment just like this is frightening indeed.

I’m saddened and distressed to learn our COB Council did not vote on this.

I don’t like having gangs, drugs, sex trafficking and other sorrow causing activities in our county, but jails treat the symptom, not the cause and we put ourselves in grave danger of becoming a police state in the wrong expenditure of effort and financial resources.

“As early as 2004, in a report titled “The Surveillance Industrial Complex,” the American Civil Liberties Union warned that the “US security establishment is making a systematic effort to extend its surveillance capacity by pressing the private sector into service to report on the activities of Americans….
...The surveillance of even moderate groups like GDAC comes at a pivotal time for the environmental movement. As greenhouse gas emissions continue unchecked, opposition to the fossil fuel industry has taken on a more urgent and confrontational tone…
...Environmentalists and civil libertarians worry that accusations of terrorism, even if completely unfounded, could undermine peaceful political protest. The mere possibility of surveillance could handicap environmental groups’ ability to achieve their political goals…
....In the fall of 2011, according to an investigation by The Washington Post, the FBI was digging for information on the leader of Rising Tide North America, a direct action environmental group, because of his opposition to hydraulic fracturing (Rising Tide has also been active in organizing protests against the Keystone XL pipeline).”

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