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It’s Time for a Reckoning About This Foundational Piece of Police Technology

Public scrutiny around data-driven technologies in the criminal justice system has been on a steady rise over the past few years, but with the recent widespread Black Lives Matter mobilization, it has reached a crescendo. Alongside a broader reckoning with the harms of the criminal justice system, technologies like facial recognition and predictive policing have been called out as racist systems that need to be dismantled. After being an early adopter of predictive policing, the Santa Cruz, California, became the first city in the United States to ban its use. An ethics committee of a police department in the United Kingdom unanimously rejected a proposal for the department to further develop an artificial intelligence system to predict gun and knife crime. And the use of pre-trial and sentencing risk assessments remain at the center of public debate on how to best address mass incarceration and racial disparities within the criminal justice system.

But a foundational piece of police technology is missing from this reckoning: criminal intelligence databases. They may be largely absent from the public debate because databases are typically considered simple record repositories, often seen as the “first stage” in the creation of more high-tech A.I. systems. But these databases perform varied and advanced functions of profiling, not unlike systems of predictive policing. The historical context and political ramifications of these systems also mirror the systematic stigmatization and “feedback loop” that is now commonly understood as a fallout of predictive A.I. systems.

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