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Journalists in Chicago sued the city’s police department for refusing to release records that may reveal how officers produce computerized predictions on who will likely engage in gun violence.
The project is known as the “heat list” or the Strategic Subject List. It depends upon a secret algorithm that reportedly “contains the names of over a thousand people at any given time.”
A study published by the RAND Corporation in 2016 found individuals on the list were not “more or less likely to become a victim of a homicide or shooting.” It is highly likely those on the list have an increased chance of arrest for shootings because officers are using the names to close shooting cases.
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.
On November 2, 2016, Joseph’s request was denied and CPD informed him disclosing records would “enable offenders to anticipate and thwart police response strategies, exposing officers and the public to risk of harm.”
The CPD responded to Kalven’s request in November, denying the requests entirely because—as CPD maintained—they have a statutory authority to “withhold records ‘that are designed to identify, prevent, or respond to potential attacks upon a community’s population or systems, facilities, or installations, the destruction or contamination of which would constitute a clear and present danger to the health or safety of the community.”
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.”
In a statement, Smith elaborated:
As some of my friends would say, poverty along race lines is not an accident. It didn’t happen “naturally.” If you believe that, that’s literally the definition of racism.
Since it’s inception, America has thrown a grotesque percentage, comparably, of people of color into a criminal system that destabilizes the communities where those people live, and brands for life those were in it and exit. This is not my opinion; it’s well-reported at The Marshall Project and by ProPublica, whose reports on police algorithms inspired my FOIA request last summer that led to this suit.
It’s my goal to find and discuss the mechanism by which this inequality of opportunity is carried out and perpetuated. This is the journalism democracy—discovering why some well-defined groups of people, as opposed to random folks here and there, don’t get a fair shot at health, wealth, and happiness.
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.”