Cities Should Act NOW to Ban Predictive Policing…and Stop Using ShotSpotter, Too

By Matthew Guariglia and Jason Kelley

Sound Thinking, the company behind ShotSpotter—an acoustic gunshot detection technology that is rife with problems—is reportedly buying Geolitica, the company behind PredPol, a predictive policing technology known to exacerbate inequalities by directing police to already massively surveilled communities. Sound Thinking acquired the other major predictive policing technology—Hunchlab—in 2018. This consolidation of harmful and flawed technologies means it’s even more critical for cities to move swiftly to ban the harmful tactics of both of these technologies.

ShotSpotter is currently linked to over 100 law enforcement agencies in the U.S. PredPol, on the other hand, was used in around 38 cities in 2021 (this may be much higher now). Shotspotter’s acquisition of Hunchlab already lead the company to claim that the tools work “hand in hand;” a 2018 press release made clear that predictive policing would be offered as an add-on product, and claimed that the integration of the two would “enable it to update predictive models and patrol missions in real time.” When companies like Sound Thinking and Geolitica merge and bundle their products, it becomes much easier for cities who purchase one harmful technology to end up deploying a suite of them without meaningful oversight, transparency, or control by elected officials or the public. Axon, for instance, was criticized by academics, attorneys, activists, and its own ethics board for their intention to put tasers on indoor drones. Now the company has announced its acquisition of Sky-Hero, which makes small tactical UAVS–a sign that they may be willing to restart the drone taser program that led a good portion of their ethics board to resign. Mergers can be a sign of future ambitions.

In some ways, these tools do belong together. Both predictive policing and gunshot recognition are severely flawed and dangerous to marginalized groups. Hopefully, this bundling will make resisting them easier as well.

As we have written, studies have found that Shotspotter’s technology is inaccurate, and its alerts sometimes result in the deployment of armed police who are expecting armed resistance to a location where there is none, but where innocent residents could become targets of suspicion as a result.

PredPol’s claim is that algorithms can predict crime. This is blatantly false. But that myth has helped propel the predictive policing industry to massive profits; it’s projected to be worth over $5 billion by the end of 2023. This false promise creates the illusion that police departments who buy predictive policing tech are being proactive about tackling crime. But the truth is, predictive policing just perpetuates centuries of inequalities in policing and exacerbates racial violence against Black, Latine, and other communities of color.

Predictive policing is a self-fulfilling prophecy. If police focus their efforts in one neighborhood, most of their arrests are likely to be in that neighborhood, leading the data to reflect that area as a hotbed of criminal activity, which can be used to justify even more police surveillance. Predictive policing systems are often designed to incorporate only reported crimes, which means that neighborhoods and communities where the police are called more often might see a higher likelihood of having predictive policing technology concentrate resources there. This cycle results in  further victimization of communities that are already mass policed—namely, communities of color, unhoused individuals, and immigrants—by using the cloak of scientific legitimacy and the supposedly unbiased nature of data.

Some cities have already banned predictive policing to protect their residents. The EU is also considering a ban, and federal elected officials have raised concerns on the dangers of the technology. Sen. Ron Wyden penned a probing letter to Attorney General Merrick Garland asking about how the technology is being used. And big cities and major customers of Shotspotter have been canceling their contracts as well, and now, the U.S. Justice Department has been asked to investigate how cities use the technology, because there is “substantial evidence” it is deployed disproportionately in majority-minority neighborhoods.

Skepticism about the efficacy and ethics of both of these technologies are on the rise, and as these companies consolidate, we must engage in more robust organizing to counter them. At the moment of this alarming merger we say–ban predictive policing! And stop using dangerous, inaccurate gunshot detection technology! The fact that these flawed tools reside in just one company is all the more reason to act swiftly.

Source: EFF

Matthew Guariglia is a policy analyst working on issues of surveillance and policing at the local, state, and federal level. He received a PhD in history at the University of Connecticut where his research focused on the intersection of race, immigration, U.S. imperialism, and policing in New York City. He is the co-editor of The Essential Kerner Commission Report (Liveright, 2021) and his book Police in the Empire City is forthcoming from Duke University Press and his bylines have appeared in NBC News, the Washington Post, Slate, Motherboard, and the Freedom of Information-centered outlet Muckrock. Matthew is an affiliated scholar at University of California, San Francisco School of Law and serves as an editor of “Disciplining the City,” a series on the history of urban policing and incarceration at the Urban History Association’s blog The Metropole.

In addition to focusing on student privacy, surveillance, and free speech issues, Jason ensures that EFF’s campaigns are seen by as many people as possible. Before joining EFF, Jason managed marketing strategy and content for a software company that helps non-programmers learn to code, and advertising and marketing analytics for a student loan startup. Jason received his BA in English and Philosophy from Kent State University and an M.F.A. in creative writing from The University of the South. He tries daily to apply advice from his professor Sam Pickering, the inspiration for Robin Williams’ character in Dead Poets Society: “Take out the extra words. Make it go quicker.”

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