by Joe Watson
With the help of a $400,000 federal grant in October 2014, the Los Angeles Police Department has expanded a high-tech program that keeps track of ex-convicts and purportedly reduces crime, alarming critics of the program who are concerned about law enforcement gathering and keeping information on people who have already done their time.
"People who have paid their debts to society shouldn't remain stigmatized in the eyes of police," the ACLU's Kade Crockford said of the LAPD's LASER program, which was first funded with $1 million and launched in 2011 in the Newton neighborhood of Los Angeles.
LASER uses technology developed by the CIA to fuse data collection and street-level intelligence gathering with a hyper-fast computer platform in order to pinpoint where crime is most likely to occur and—at least in the eyes of the LAPD—who is most likely to commit it.
The computer platform, called Palantir, uses data from 15 different sources to gather information, largely on the formerly incarcerated.
Palantir is now used by more than 3,500 LAPD cops to create dossiers on what police say are chronic offenders—collecting information such as photos of individuals, and license plate and cellphone numbers.
With the additional federal grant money, the program has now been expanded into seven other neighborhoods throughout Los Angeles.
"This is a tremendous step forward," said LAPD Capt. Ed Prokop, whose division patrols the Newton neighborhood. "Without (LASER), I couldn't do my job."
Now, officials from New York, Nevada, Wisconsin, Washington, Texas and Canada are expressing interest in LASER, according to Craig Uchida, president of Justice & Security Strategies Inc., and LASER'S research partner.
What most frightens critics of LASER like Crockford—and even some who advocate for law enforcement—is not only that the program isn't transparent or that it unfairly targets ex-convicts, but that it also intentionally or unintentionally alienates minorities.
"You're repackaging old biases in new technologies," Crockford said.
According to ACLU lawyer Peter Bibring, LASER amounts to intelligence files on people who might commit crimes—and that, he says, are a violation of federal law.
"The chances of police scrutiny go up significantly" for anyone on a list created using Palantir, Bibring said, "(as do) your chances of being identified wrongly in a crime."
The LAPD might even be violating its own standards for gathering intelligence, Bibring added. Thirty years ago, a scandal revealing that a LAPD division was amassing millions of intelligence files on about 55,000 people shut that division down.
Though LASER analysts are encouraged to purge its lists of those who haven't committed a crime in six months, according to Uchida, they're not required to do so.
Jim Bueermann, president of the nonprofit Police Foundation, said he understands that, with limited resources, police will focus on areas where crime has historically been highest. But, he said, "American policing has a history of abusing this notion of domestic intelligence gathering."
And, he added, simply targeting ex-convicts is not smart police work.
"People do change," he said.
Sources: The Associated Press, http://lapa.princeton.edu
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