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In the war on crime, law enforcement officers need every possible tool that they can use (safely) to deter illegal activity and keep the... When Law Enforcement Software Goes Too Far

In the war on crime, law enforcement officers need every possible tool that they can use (safely) to deter illegal activity and keep the public safe. Some of those tools are as old as police forces themselves, while others are so high tech as to be the stuff of futuristic movies. But the unfortunately reality is that having the tech and using it responsibly aren’t the same thing.

police tape

Police forces around the country are incorporating a new item in the crime prevention arsenal, and it’s already raising a few privacy and civil rights advocates’ eyebrows. Called Beware, it lets officers look at a suspect’s complete criminal history before arriving on the scene.

Until this software came along, officers responded to a call and gathered information, during which time they can make a call back to the station and discover that their “perp” has some outstanding warrants. That’s all very logical. But Beware allows officers to find out instantly about charges going back years, essentially, the charges that have already been prosecuted and either dropped or served.

Why would an officer responding to an emergency call need to know that you had an arrest in 1997 for armed robbery? Ostensibly, it’s to allow that officer to assume that you have a violent streak and to treat you as such. But Beware has another feature, and even police officers aren’t able to answer the crucial questions about it.

This software automatically assigns a “threat level” to a particular address, but only the programmers know exactly what the criteria would be that causes one address to be a “yellow” and another address to be “red.” Despite claims that law enforcement agencies don’t know how that determination is made, it doesn’t take too much intelligence to figure out that previous crimes, neighborhood demographics, and even race may play a factor in telling a cop that he should be extra cautious about approaching a particular property, no matter why he was called.

Beware isn’t done profiling you just yet… another feature of this software allows it to cull social media posts to determine if you’ve posted anything anti-law enforcement online (ie, “Man, so tired of these pigs riding through my neighborhood, always asking what we’re doing”). If your address has too many red flags about your feelings towards the police, you may find yourself bumping up a notch to a higher threat level, something that police will know about you before you ever open the door.

While no one argues that law enforcement agencies are tasked with a thankless, dangerous job, it’s hard to envision how this kind of presupposition will foster better community relations and save lives.