MAR 20, 2018 07:15 AM PDT

New Orleans Ends Secretive Crime Prediction Program

WRITTEN BY: Julia Travers

For the last six-years, a predictive policing initiative has been in use in New Orleans, established through a partnership between the Police Department and data mining company Palantir Technologies. As The Verge reported in March 2018, this program was kept a secret from most of the public along with many members of City Council as well as of the judicial system, some of whom were involved in criminal cases that relied, in part, on the program’s findings.

“No one in New Orleans even knows about this, to my knowledge,” Political Consultant James Carville said, who reportedly played a central role in setting up the partnership.

collage of city skyline, computer data illustration, credit: public domain

New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu announced on March 14, 2018 that his office would be ending the program, which was renewed three times since 2012.

Palantir’s network-analysis software was implemented in an effort to find possible committers and victims of crime. It used people’s criminal histories, social media activity and ties to gang members, among other stats, to predict involvement in violent crime.

The partnership reportedly avoided a public procurement process because Palantir ran it as a philanthropic initiative through a program Landrieu had already developed called, “NOLA For Life.”

NOLA For Life aims to reduce the city’s murder rate by offering public support in the realms of education, reentry and housing, among others, and services including mentoring and mental health support. According to the program site, “Launched in May 2012, NOLA For Life is Mayor Landrieu’s cutting-edge murder reduction strategy for the City of New Orleans. It’s smart, holistic and it hits the streets.”

Notably, the Palantir-based system was used by the police in the building of indictments against individuals accused of being drug-trafficking gang members. When the government turned over the evidence it had used during the case discovery processes, The Palantir partnership was omitted.

One defendant has already challenged his drug conspiracy and racketeering conviction on the grounds that Palantir-related evidence was withheld during his case. In response to this development, New Orleans Parish District Attorney Spokesperson Ken Daley said, “The NOPD’s Palantir software played no role whatsoever in [his] indictment and prosecution.”

New Orleans’ murder rate is the fourth highest in the country. Chicago, which has the 25th highest rate, also turned to crunching data in an effort to prevent crime. It has what is known as a "heat list" or “Strategic Subject List” — a list of people deemed likely to be involved in shootings, which is algorithm-generated. An August 2016 report from nonprofit policy institute RAND Corporation found that the list was ineffective at preventing crime.

"[A]t-risk individuals were not more or less likely to become victims of a homicide or shooting as a result of the SSL, and this is further supported by city-level analysis finding no effect on the city homicide trend," the report’s authors state.

Also in 2016, the public-interest journalism nonprofit ProPublica discovered racial biases in the U.S. criminal justice system’s AI-run risk assessment system, in another analysis of hi-tech policing. This program is used in major decisions such as the formation of defendants’ sentencing and bond. Black people were identified as likely to repeat a crime approximately twice as often as other demographic groups, and only 20 percent of all violent crime predictions were accurate.  


About the Author
  • Julia Travers is a writer, artist and teacher. She frequently covers science, tech and conservation.
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