…[In 2009] the National Institute of Justice began issuing grants for pilot projects in crime forecasting. Those grants underpin some of the best-known — and most scrutinized — predictive policing efforts in Chicago and Los Angeles. Programs vary, and the algorithms are often proprietary, but they all aim to ingest vast stores of data — geography, criminal records, the weather, social media histories — and make predictions about individuals or places likely to be involved in a crime.
The company provided software to a secretive NOPD program that traced people’s ties to other gang members, outlined criminal histories, analyzed social media, and predicted the likelihood that individuals would commit violence or become a victim. As part of the discovery process in Lewis’ trial, the government turned over more than 60,000 pages of documents detailing evidence gathered against him from confidential informants, ballistics, and other sources — but they made no mention of the NOPD’s partnership with Palantir, according to a source familiar with the 39ers trial.
…Predictive policing technology has proven highly controversial wherever it is implemented, but in New Orleans, the program escaped public notice, partly because Palantir established it as a philanthropic relationship with the city through Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s signature NOLA For Life program. Thanks to its philanthropic status, as well as New Orleans’ “strong mayor” model of government, the agreement never passed through a public procurement process.
…The relationship between New Orleans and Palantir was finalized on February 23rd, 2012, when Mayor Landrieu signed an agreement granting New Orleans free access to the firm’s public sector data integration platform.
…In January 2013, New Orleans would also allow Palantir to use its law enforcement account for LexisNexis’ Accurint product, which is comprised of millions of searchable public records, court filings, licenses, addresses, phone numbers, and social media data. The firm also got free access to city criminal and non-criminal data in order to train its software for crime forecasting. Neither the residents of New Orleans nor key city council members whose job it is to oversee the use of municipal data were aware of Palantir’s access to reams of their data.
…The data on individuals came from information scraped from social media as well as NOPD criminal databases for ballistics, gangs, probation and parole information, jailhouse phone calls, calls for service, the central case management system (i.e., every case NOPD had on record), and the department’s repository of field interview cards. The latter database represents every documented encounter NOPD has with citizens, even those that don’t result in arrests. In 2010, The Times-Picayune revealed that Chief Serpas had mandated that the collection of field interview cards be used as a measure of officer and district performance, resulting in over 70,000 field interview cards filled out in 2011 and 2012. The practice resembled NYPD’s “stop and frisk” program and was instituted with the express purpose of gathering as much intelligence on New Orleanians as possible, regardless of whether or not they committed a crime.
…NOPD then used the list of potential victims and perpetrators of violence generated by Palantir to target individuals for the city’s CeaseFire program. CeaseFire is a form of the decades-old carrot-and-stick strategy developed by David Kennedy, a professor at John Jay College in New York. In the program, law enforcement informs potential offenders with criminal records that they know of their past actions and will prosecute them to the fullest extent if they re-offend. If the subjects choose to cooperate, they are “called in” to a required meeting as part of their conditions of probation and parole and are offered job training, education, potential job placement, and health services. In New Orleans, the CeaseFire program is run under the broader umbrella of NOLA For Life, which is Mayor Landrieu’s pet project that he has funded through millions of dollars from private donors.
…Of the 308 people who participated in call-ins from October 2012 through March 2017, seven completed vocational training, nine completed “paid work experience,” none finished a high school diploma or GED course, and 32 were employed at one time or another through referrals. Fifty participants were detained following their call-in, and two have since died.
By contrast, law enforcement vigorously pursued its end of the program. From November 2012, when the new Multi-Agency Gang Unit was founded, through March 2014, racketeering indictments escalated: 83 alleged gang members in eight gangs were indicted in the 16-month period, according to an internal Palantir presentation.
Call-ins declined precipitously after the first few years. According to city records, eight group call-ins took place from 2012 to 2014, but only three took place in the following three years.
…Palantir marketing staff first contacted the Chicago Police Department in late 2013 about the possibility of selling a predictive policing package based on the firm’s New Orleans work, eventually settling on a $3 million price tag. Through a series of federal grants awarded to CPD beginning in 2009, Chicago Police and academics at the Illinois Institute of Technology had already created their own crime-forecasting program that assigned a risk score to individuals based on criminal data and social media histories.
…Palantir provides data analysis and integration for the Los Angeles Police Department, but the arrangement was made through the LA Police Foundation rather than the LAPD itself. In New York, the firm’s contract was not disclosed by the city comptroller for security reasons (NYPD does this with surveillance equipment contracts), and it was never brought to the city council for approval. Palantir’s work with NYPD only became public when documents about its tumultuous relationship with the country’s largest police force were leaked to BuzzFeed reporter William Alden.
…Licenses and tech support for Palantir’s law enforcement platform can run to millions of dollars annually, according to an audit of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.
…As more departments and companies began experimenting with predictive policing, government-funded research cast doubts on its efficacy, and independent academics found it can have a disparate impact on poor communities of color. A 2016 study reverse-engineered PredPol’s algorithm and found that it replicated “systemic bias” against over-policed communities of color and that historical crime data did not accurately predict future criminal activity.
……Even within the law enforcement community, there are concerns about the potential civil liberties implications of the sort of individualized prediction Palantir developed in New Orleans, and whether it’s appropriate for the American criminal justice system.
…It’s especially disturbing that this level of intrusive research into the lives of ordinary residents is kept virtually a secret,” said Jim Craig, the director of the Louisiana office of the Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center.
…Cities around the country have recently begun to grapple with the question of if and how municipalities should regulate data sharing and privacy.
“The same flaws that were in the Chicago predictive program are going to be amplified in New Orleans’ data set,” Isaac said.
The secrecy surrounding the NOPD program also raises questions about whether defendants have been given evidence they have a right to view. Sarah St. Vincent, a researcher at Human Rights Watch, recently published an 18-month investigation into parallel construction, or the practice of law enforcement concealing evidence gathered from surveillance activity. In an interview, St. Vincent said that law enforcement withholding intelligence gathering or analysis like New Orleans’ predictive policing work effectively kneecaps the checks and balances of the criminal justice system. At the Cato Institute’s 2017 Surveillance Conference in December, St. Vincent raised concerns about why information garnered from predictive policing systems was not appearing in criminal indictments or complaints.
“It’s the role of the judge to evaluate whether what the government did in this case was legal,” St. Vincent said of the New Orleans program. “I do think defense attorneys would be right to be concerned about the use of programs that might be inaccurate, discriminatory, or drawing from unconstitutional data.”