Police end data-gathering effort
Chicago cops rated residents’ risks of links to violence
Chicago police quietly stopped rating the risk of people being caught up in violence.
Chicago police have quietly ended a controversial data-gathering effort that rated tens of thousands of residents on who was most likely to be caught up in violence — either as a victim or criminal.
A report last week by the city’s government watchdog disclosed the demise of the eight-year program — referred to by police as the “Strategic Subject List” or SSL — while raising concerns about its operations on a number of fronts, including the accuracy of the ratings and the sharing of the data with other law enforcement agencies.
The Police Department had revised the SSL numerous times since its inception in 2012, including a significant overhaul last year that included a name change.
In quietly dumping the program in November, the department acknowledged that the data-scraping effort hadn’t reduced violence, citing a national study released last year that found the SSL ineffective.
The reversal follows a similar move by Los Angeles police last year.
One national expert said CPD’s decision was long overdue, considering the inherent bias in a department targeting people based on its own data as well as the risk of violating individuals’ civil rights and concerns that such lists lead over-policed communities to distrust the police.
“It is a big deal,” said Andrew Ferguson, a visiting professor at American University Washington College of Law who has written extensively on big data policing risks. “It finally puts the brakes on a system of targeted person-based predictive policing that was largely flawed at the outset. I think there is a clear financial cost — money not spent dealing with the underlying social and economic issues that cause violent crime. But there is also a personal cost to the individuals who were on these lists or targeted by these lists.”
‘We know who they are’
The SSL program was borne out of Chicago’s experimentation in the 2000s with predictive policing, a scientific approach to figuring out which “hot spots” would see spikes in violence so more officers could be deployed there to help out. Chicago ultimately became the only big-city police department to win a federal grant allowing it to place increasing emphasis on those behind the violence.
Using a computerized algorithm developed by the Illinois Institute of Technology, police scored people on the list from zero to more than 500 by looking at myriad factors, including their criminal histories, especially for weapons or drug offenses, as well as if they had ever been shot or affiliated with a street gang. The higher the score, the greater their risk to be involved in violence.
Similar to other department databases, the SSL was accessible to street cops — and soon became integral to their daily operations. For a time, then-Superintendent Eddie Johnson noted “we know who they are” in discussing the city’s criminal element — a reference to the SSL.
Police brass often cited the data in response to high-profile crime incidents, telling reporters if suspects scored high on the SSL. But it was never clear that it provided a practical way to reduce violence. A 2019 study by the Rand Corporation concluded as much.
In the report, the public policy think tank concluded that the Police Department’s last version of the SSL was “operationally unsuitable” for several reasons, including that the data used to determine individuals’ risk assessments was too out of date to keep up with the quick pace of Chicago’s violence.
The report also found a “level of public fear” about the program that overshadowed its efforts to reduce violence. Those public concerns stemmed from the Police Department’s failure to be fully open about the program’s inner workings, the report said.
The study noted as well that being on a “bad guy list” tarnished shooting victims.
In addition, since arrest data was a key factor in determining those most atrisk of violence, anyone with a recent arrest was automatically subjected to “additional scrutiny and punishment,” Rand said.
The Police Department touted its use of the SSL by police officials, clergy and community leaders during door-to-door visits with some of those with the highest scores, warning them about the dangers of a criminal lifestyle while offering social services to try to help steer them away from trouble.
In its report released last week, the city inspector general’s office found fault with the Police Department for, among other things, not properly training its officers on their use of the SSL.
The IG report also criticized the Police Department for sharing the data with the Cook County sheriff’s and state’s attorney’s offices as well as the mayor’s office without providing guidelines on how to use information.
The report also faulted police officials for improperly factoring individuals’ arrest histories into their scores without considering whether they had been convicted.
“If an individual was released without charges or was charged and acquitted, or if the charges were dismissed, that individual would have had a risk score … which factored in an offense which they were never found to have committed,” the report said.
Ferguson, the law professor, noted that what he calls “targeted people-based” predictive policing also raises problems because it is based on arrest records generated by the department, resulting in a built-in bias. For example, drug arrests can be a product of overpolicing, possibly undercutting the validity of such data to determine an individual’s true risk.
Ferguson said using such data in developing policing strategies can be effective, but he criticized CPD — facing pressure to reduce violence — for pushing the idea without an effective plan for how it would be used.
“Chicago felt like they had to do something, and this was their answer,” he said. “All of these things are a failure of imagination, of vision at the front end.”
Last year a similar list kept by Los Angeles police of the city’s “chronic offenders” drew criticism in a police oversight report for being poorly maintained and inconsistent. This led the department to announce major changes, Ferguson said.
A shift in strategy
In late September, the nearly $4 million in federal grant money that CPD used to develop the SSL ran out, leading to its cancellation on Nov. 1, according to the inspector general’s report.
In an interview Friday, Anthony Guglielmi, the Police Department’s chief spokesman, said the decision to end the effort also reflected a shift in strategy to rely on technology centers inside police districts and detective areas as well as support for a growing network of community organizations that provide street outreach, social services and victim advocacy across the city.
The tech centers, funded largely by a $10 million private donation, offer a wide array of computer programs and specialized tools — including gunshot detection technology called ShotSpotter and an extensive network of surveillance cameras — for officers to track violence in real time.
The centers have been expanded to all but two of the city’s 22 districts, providing critical information in solving shootings, the department said.
But Ferguson warned that, just like the SSL, the tech centers’ expanded use of surveillance needs to be monitored to protect the constitutional rights of citizens.
“We can’t take our eyes off the ball,” he said.
In response, Guglielmi said the tech centers gather data mostly on the places and times that crimes happen to help commanders deploy officers to respond. The centers are used to quickly gather any relevant video footage. The city, he said, has a long history of depending on surveillance cameras, and he stressed they capture crimes taking place in public spaces only, not private homes.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, which has been critical of the Police Department’s emphasis on predictive policing, praised its decision to end its use of the SSL as well as the inspector general’s report for shining a light on its problems.
In a statement, Karen Sheley, director of the ACLU of Illinois’ police practices project, called for continued transparency on the Police Department’s part for the “predictive policing tools” it is still using.
“Transparency is critical to the ongoing effort to create faith in policing in Chicago,” she said. “Unregulated, sophisticated, powerful databases involving hundreds of thousands of names only harm that trust.”
Chicago police officers process a crime scene on Jan. 16. Police quietly ended a controversial data-gathering effort to predict crime in November.