The Chicago police department continues to march toward what it calls “policing in the 21st century.” If their conduct is any indication, that police work would include systemic corruption, unlawful detention, torture, racial profiling and mass surveillance.
However, activists and journalists continue to work hard to expose even more abuses that might still lurk in the shadows. Some progress has been made. Derrick Broze reported in January of last year about Chicago activist, Freddy Martinez, who filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request with the CPD in 2014. Martinez was seeking details regarding the much-maligned use of Stingray cell phone surveillance. Despite the Chicago PD refusing to answer the request, a Cook County, Illinois judge ordered the Chicago Police Department to allow her to review documents related to cell phone surveillance tools. This case is illustrative of the pressure that needs to be exerted if we are to get answers about what our public servants are truly doing on our behalf.
But Stingray surveillance is merely one component of a much larger surveillance network that Chicago has set up and continues to expand, which even includes an explicit mission to embrace “predictive policing” — essentially, the concept of pre-crime that most people hoped was relegated purely to science fiction.
In late 2013 the public was alerted to an index of approximately 400 people who had been identified by a computer algorithm as being future threats to commit violent crime. Without having actually committed a crime, some of those on the list were being visited by Chicago police warning them that they were already being watched. This index came to be known as the “Heat List.”
When the Chicago Police Department sent one of its commanders to Robert McDaniel’s home last summer, the 22-year-old high school dropout was surprised. Though he lived in a neighborhood well-known for bloodshed on its streets, he hadn’t committed a crime or interacted with a police officer recently. And he didn’t have a violent criminal record, nor any gun violations. In August, he incredulously told the Chicago Tribune, “I haven’t done nothing that the next kid growing up hadn’t done.” Yet, there stood the female police commander at his front door with a stern message: if you commit any crimes, there will be major consequences. We’re watching you.
At issue is the fact that no one knows how the algorithm works, nor has there been sufficient oversight to judge its effectiveness or lawfulness. Moreover, that initial list of 400 has apparently grown to 5,000. Three journalists are now suing the Chicago police for information that can explain exactly how people are winding up on this secretive list now called the “Strategic Subject List.” As reported by Shadow Proof:
Journalists George Joseph, Jamie Kalven, and Brandon Smith submitted freedom of information requests under the Illinois law in 2016. The Chicago Sun-Times submitted their request for records in May, according to the filed complaint [PDF].
Joseph sought records on the risk factors that are used when placing individuals on the list and communications about increasing the number of people on the list.
Records on “the algorithm that determines who makes it on the Strategic Subject List” were sought by Kalven. He also requested records that included manuals or guides on the use of the interface employed to list people.
Smith also requested records that would reveal the secret algorithm underpinning a key component of predictive policing used by Chicago police. He wanted data showing “risk scores of all people added to the list in its first two years of regular or non-test use.” He also wanted to know if the first 5,000 individuals on the lists were charged with new crimes in the two years following their inclusion.
The CPD denied Smith’s request for information on 5,000 individuals and called it “unduly burdensome.” It indicated it would issue an additional response rejecting other parts of the request but Smith never received a further response.
As we can see, it is clear that not only is the culture of secrecy being embraced by the CPD, but there is also an arrogant dismissal of such investigation as “unduly burdensome.” However, these particular journalists have an excellent track record of applying the proper pressure needed to defend the rights of Chicago’s citizens, explaining why full disclosure is essential.
Smith played an instrumental role in forcing the release of CPD video showing Officer Jason Van Dyke shooting Laquan McDonald. He killed McDonald and the city of Chicago initially tried to conceal the video from the public.
“For decades, it’s been law enforcement’s [mode of operation] to deny everything on the basis that everything they do is investigation and thus privileged. That’s just not the case, according to the freedom of information law in Illinois and in most places,” Smith declared.
Smith continued, “This is what the law was made for is cases like this, where the government is making decisions that could have really adverse effects on people. And we have to know how and why they’re making decisions.”
Kalven was responsible for forcing the release of numerous police misconduct records through a lawsuit that culminated in a decision by an Illinois appeals court in 2014.
“We have learned too many times that a lack of transparency into the Chicago Police Department leads to unconstitutional policing and violations of civil rights,” said Matthew Topic of Loevy & Loevy, the civil rights law firm handling this lawsuit.
“While novel forms of policing like this aren’t necessarily bad, it’s crucial that the public know how these lists are generated and whether they result in discrimination and civil rights violations.”
Every police department should be open to requests from its citizens to explain their conduct, but if ever there was a department that needs to be forced to reveal its procedures, it is the Chicago PD. The outcome of this lawsuit bears watching as the trend toward pre-crime surveillance is spreading quickly to police departments across the country. Hopefully, Chicago’s judiciary follows its previous precedent to compel police to provide this information.