A guest post from Virginia Eubanks, author of Digital Dead End: Fighting for Social Justice in the Information Age.
Not long ago, the police arrived in my neighborhood to check on a weekend ruckus. I was sitting on my stoop, and a cruiser pulled up alongside me. The police officer asked what was going on, got information, and then drove across the street to talk to my neighbors. Throughout this process, which lasted four or five minutes, the officer never once made eye contact with me. He was turned toward the empty passenger seat, using his laptop.
Our interaction reminded me of my last doctor's appointment. My doctor has a great bedside manner, and made a point of connecting with me personally as she got my medical history and examined me. But I still had to duck and bob my head into her line of sight when I asked her a question, because she was typing notes into the laptop she always carries.
In the classroom at a large public university, I struggle with allowable mobile device use—laptops are great for taking notes and smart phones allow students to find information in an instant. But with growing class sizes, it is nearly impossible to monitor when technology is being used for learning, and when my students are playing solitaire or texting their friends. As mobile devices become more common, I feel less like an educator and more like a media stream, competing with YouTube and SMS and Android apps for the eyeballs and attention of my students.
Throughout the public sector -- where professionals toil to provide law enforcement, education, healthcare and social services -- mobile technologies are becoming ubiquitous. Teachers rely on "clickers" and online course activities to facilitate student participation in large lecture classes; hospitals tag patients, nurses and equipment with radio frequency ID chips; and law enforcement relies on everything from gang databases to night-vision goggles.
There are undoubtedly benefits to using these technologies to facilitate the provision of public services. The goal of management information systems is, at least in theory, to increase accountability of workers, connect and coordinate agency efforts, track policy targets across geographical boundaries, and make public administration more transparent to citizens.
But how do these innovations impact the relationships between public workers and the citizens they serve? Do they keep lines of communication open and provide us with the information we need to access state resources, or do they sow the seeds of mutual mistrust and suspicion? How are these technologies shaped by "zero-tolerance" policing, "work first" welfare, and "teaching to the test" education? And what does it all have to do with race, class and gender?
These questions will undoubtedly be raised on June 17, when thousands of New Yorkers gather to protest NYPD's "Stop and Frisk" policy and the CompStat system that supports it.
Neither software program nor mobile technology per se, CompStat (COMPuterized STATistics) is an approach to law enforcement management and record keeping pioneered in New York City in the mid-1990s. CompStat requires a weekly crime report from each of NYPD's 76 districts. This information is sent to the CompStat Unit office, which compiles the data, enters it into a citywide database, and issues reports used as performance indicators of the mandate to lower major crime rates and increase the number of quality of life arrests.
CompStat has met with glowing praise from many government officials (including Mayors Giuliani and Bloomberg), law enforcement professionals, and scholars of criminology and public policy. CompStat is often credited with a significant contribution to drops in crime rates since its inception in 1994. According to the NYPD, crime in the seven major categories of felony offenses—murder, rape, robbery, felony assault, burglary, grand larceny and grand larceny auto—dropped 43% in the first decade of the twenty-first century.
But there are also criticisms. In a case now made famous by a Village Voice exposé and an episode of This American Life, officer Adrian Schoolcraft’s surreptitious audio recording of daily activities at Bedford-Stuyvesant's 81st Precinct showed that manipulation of crime statistics under CompStat is endemic. Based on 25 years of research in the NYPD, criminal justice scholars John A. Eterno and Eli B. Silverman argue that CompStat violates constitutional rights to due process, negatively impacts community relations, creates an environment in which abuses of authority are rampant, and weakens creative problem-solving. Advocates of community policing complain that the high-tech but impersonal CompStat model is supplanting community policing models centered on decentralized administration, increased personal interaction, and citizen empowerment.
Many argue that manipulation of data in CompStat is systemic and widespread. Often called "juking the stats," the manipulation of data is evident in marked increases in "stop and frisks," where officers detain and search people based on subjective evaluations of public behavior, such as furtive movements, "casing" a location, and bulges in clothing. The number of stop and frisks has increased by nearly 700% over the last decade: from 97,296 stops in 2002 to 685,724 in 2011. According to New York Civil Liberties Union, there have been 4,356,927 stops during the Bloomberg administration alone.
Though stop and frisks are ostensibly about controlling gun violence, in only 1.9% of cases does a frisk turn up a weapon. Eighty-eight percent of people stopped on 2011 were guilty of no crimes at all. Eighty-seven percent of people stopped were Black and Latino.
Equally troubling is the practice, reported in the Village Voice and The New York Daily News, of downgrading reported crimes from the seven major felonies to lesser felonies, or even misdemeanors. In the most egregious case, a serial rapist in Washington Heights went undetected for his first six rapes in 2002 because patrol supervisors improperly labeled the rapes—though they were reported by the victims—as misdemeanors, including criminal trespassing.
The flaws of CompStat clearly matter for the quality of information we have about crime levels and our perceptions of the safety of our homes and neighborhoods. In fact, I wonder if recent reports of crime explosions in Chicago and New York City have more to do with shifting reporting practices than actual criminal activity.
But that’s not the only reason we should be pay attention to the computerization of public services like law enforcement. We should be thinking of the reactions of the 600,000 people who were stopped and frisked in New York City in 2011, but were guilty of no crime. We should think about the emotional cost to victims of major crimes who overcame trauma and fear to file a police report, only to have a rape or felony assault mysteriously reclassified and pursued as a misdemeanor. We should be very concerned about what happens to the credibility of policing and our judicial system when those most directly harmed by these practices are women, men of color, and the poor and working class.
At the heart of the matter is the quality of our citizenship, the nature of our relationship with the state and its representatives. Fact is, we are governed by systems like CompStat. They set the rules of engagement between us and the bureaucracies that maintain order, distribute resources, and shape our communities.
The historic coalition of 261 LGBTQ, civil rights, labor, law enforcement and community organizations organizing this weekend’s march have managed to put the crucial issues surrounding stop and frisk practices on the national stage. Let’s seize this moment. But it is important that our analysis go beyond individual interactions among police officers and citizens on the street. These issues are deeply systemic, and not exclusive to law enforcement. We need to take this moment to shine a light on how computerization is changing the provision of public services in the United States, and to decide what we want to do about it.