Beware be Gone
Fresno says no to Beware software threat assessments of residents
Thanks to some clear-thinking members of its City Council, residents of Fresno, California can breathe a little easier when there is a knock on their door and worry less about being surveilled, harassed, interrogated, and brutalized by their local cops because of something they might have posted online or a file they downloaded.
The issue involved a proposal put forth to the council by its police chief Jerry Dyer. The idea was to use $28,000 from a U.S. Department of Homeland Security grant to continue the use of software called Beware, developed by West Corporation, a public safety solutions company.
If it were just a video game for children, Beware would be far less insidious. But what this software does is connect together major databases, one created by the software developer that includes billions of snippets of commercially-available public information, the second a set of publicly-accessible postings from social media such as Facebook or Twitter, and the third is a city, county, or other regional online criminal records report.
Then Beware evaluates the data, passes judgement on each person and assigns them a ‘threat level’ of green, yellow or red. That information is provided to police officers who can instantly access it from anywhere.
The premise behind the software is that it will give cops an idea of who they are going up against before approaching them so that they can determine the level of force and caution that should be deployed.
According to Police Chief Jerry Dyer, “Our officers are expected to know the unknown and see the unseen. They are making split-second decisions based on limited facts. The more [we] can provide in terms of intelligence … the more safely [we] can respond to calls.”
On the surface this doesn’t sound like a bad idea. But, the problem is that the accuracy of the information is questionable, violates the privacy of citizens and the right to due process and could be used to justify the use of greater force than called for. Police brutality is already at a level when it should be a national emergency.
What is scary about this is not the sifting of information, but how it would be used. It is understandable that if one were to threaten a public official in a public post that police would rightfully be concerned and investigate further. But Beware parses words more finely and is far more prone to error. In one example that was part of a test of the software, a post a Fresno woman made about a card game that included the world ‘rage’ was flagged as a higher risk than someone just playing bridge.
Other examples of how the same information might be misused suggest how bad things could get and how quickly. In a publicly-available chat or post, someone might comment about wanting to punch someone and have it considered a real threat rather than someone just blowing off steam. Another might make reference to a ‘bombing’ planned for their house when it was actually a bug-bomb pesticide can they were setting off to kill insects. There are also all sorts of slang words which could be misunderstood out of context.
There are countless examples of authorities misinterpreting every-day social interactions and human expressions and grossly over-reacting.
Everything you say can and will be used against you is only supposed to apply after one has been arrested - which is supposed to occur only after evidence of lawbreaking has been presented and a warrant issued, or one is caught breaking the law. We are supposed to be presumed to be innocent until a jury of our peers determines otherwise in a court of law.
In the digital age, most people are expressing themselves in ways that can be easily recorded and analyzed. It is now possible to make presumptions about
what kind of person someone is by their online activity.
Most Facebookers, Tweeters and Emailers don’t realize that everything they transmit online, websites visited and what they buy offline can be recorded, analyzed, combined with other data and used to profile them, predict future behavior, pass judgement on them and in some cases penalize them - all without their knowledge or consent.
Based on documents from the federal government disseminated to state and local law enforcement, the perspective of the United States Department of Homeland Security and its sub-agencies is that anyone who expresses outrage at injustice or cruelty, who supports the ideals embodied in the Constitution, believes that the environment should be protected or vigorously opposes government corruption is a potential terrorist. So, basically if you are a decent and somewhat aware person, the government could consider you a potential threat.
If we can’t trust our government should we give them more power?
At the same time, we need our police. We need them to enforce sane laws justly while respecting the rights of all. In order to do their job, cops need to feel that they are reasonably safe. The more fearful a cop becomes the more dangerous they are and Fresno cops have plenty of reason to be afraid.
Fresno is a city of approx. 500,000 people and its police department receives an average of twelve-hundred 911 calls every day. The more information an officer has when responding to a 911 call, the more they can respond appropriately and maybe the better they can prioritize calls. But can they be trusted to utilize information responsibly?
Like many city police departments, Fresno’s has a long history of corruption. Some of the more recent charges may indicate what the city’s police are capable of and how Beware could be used against residents.
On January 15th this year, Fresno activist John Lang contacted ABC30 Reporter Colin Hoggard via Facebook and told him “Corrupt Fresno Cops are going to try to kill me this weekend, possibly tonight.”
On January 20th, John Lang was dead and his house on fire. The official autopsy did not determine if it was the multiple stab wounds or house fire which killed him.
It is possible that John Lang somehow killed himself by stabbing himself in the back after setting his house on fire, that he was paranoid and that his documentation of harassment and corruption by Fresno police is just circumstantial. Fresno is home to many mentally ill people. However, there are other cases that indicate that Fresno police might abuse info. from Beware.
In 2015, Fresno’s deputy police chief Keith Foster and Jerry Dyer’s number two for eight years and six others were indicted for distributing heroin and other drugs.
Also in 2015, former detective Derik Kumagai plead guilty to accepting a $20,000 bribe from suspected drug traffickers. The case involved eleven other members of the Fresno PD.
The drug cases were the result of federal, not Fresno investigations.
2014 - Fresno Police Officer Alfred Campos was investigated after bringing a stolen pickup to the Chevy dealership in Fresno. His home was raided for drugs.
2012 - Fresno Police officer William Wyatt was arrested for rape.
2010 - Fresno PD officers were indicted on federal civil rights violations, and obstruction of justice after they beat a Fresno man in their custody.
2009 - Two Fresno officers are caught on camera beating a homeless lady. Two narcotics officers are arrested for their involvement in an auto theft operation.
2008 - Chief Dyer comes under fire after his nephew is arrested on possession with the intent to sell methamphetamine.
2004 - Potential whistle-blower Jose Moralez was found dead not far from the house of Jerry Dyer after he had confronted Dyer for suspending him for allegedly violating police polices. The family of Jose Moralez accused Dyer and fellow police officer, Al Maroney, of murdering Jose and covering it up. Jose Moralez’s wife, former detective Yolanda Moralez, publicly revealed a very sinister and corrupt police department under Chief Jerry Dyer.
Given that some of the same people accused of corruption and even murder are still in power at the Fresno police department, the city council may have been wise to not fund Jerry Dyer’s continued usage of the Beware software and potential misuse against the residents of the city.
The author of this article has asked to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals from Chief Dyer.