Just one 24 hour period in my work this week showed how dangerously misguided Baltimore leaders continue to be in their efforts to reduce violence. They are looking once again to "tough on crime" policies that lock up more Black residents, for longer periods of time.
They are using "predictive policing" computer models to concentrate police action and further over-police Black and Brown individuals, regardless of criminal behavior. They are relying on a police force plagued with rampant corruption and abuse of force, repeatedly and clearly shown to be unaccountable to the communities they serve. And they appear mysteriously blind to how under-resourced, community-based programs are leading the way right now, demonstrating real progress at reducing violence. This all begs a question that Baltimore leaders seem intent to not directly confront: Who and what are these policies intended to benefit? The answer seems to be systems of white supremacy designed to devalue the lives of Black and Brown residents - whether or not that's what Baltimore leaders intend.
So, what was happening during those 24 hours?
Reporters started calling the ACLU office for comment about Mayor Catherine Pugh's plan to use "predictive policing" in Baltimore. The claim is that computer models can predict where crimes will occur, and police can be deployed to prevent them from occurring. But it's more accurate to think of it as "tech-washing" discriminatory enforcement strategies by lending them a false air of objectivity, since it uses data and algorithms. There is scant, if any, proof that crime can be "predicted" with the level of specificity necessary to prevent it from happening. There's even less proof that officers can be deployed based on such predictions to prevent it, as opposed to just causing the crime to happen in some other time or place.
With predictive policing there is no transparency about what data is considered and how it is weighted and used in the software to make the predictions. Before such a tool is used in Baltimore that information should be disclosed, so the public can assess the data chosen and how it's used is appropriate. Algorithms are no less biased than the humans who write them, and without the ability to scrutinize and test them, claims of objectivity don't mean anything.
"Garbage in, garbage out" is a problem for predictive policing programs, too, because the use of historical crime data to make predictions just reinforces pre-existing race disparities in enforcement. Policing data is notoriously lacking. Much crime is unknown and not reported. For example, Baltimore Police data on stops and frisks is glaringly incomplete and racially skewed. This is especially true with respect to drug offenses or stop and frisk, where communities of color clearly bear the brunt of law enforcement.
In the end, it is hard to see "predictive policing" as anything other than an attempt to provide a technological veneer to the same old "flood the zone" policing strategies that Baltimore was supposedly denouncing and moving away from, after being exposed by the Department of Justice's findings and subject to the consent decree.
Meanwhile yesterday, reporters were also contacting the ACLU about the destructive omnibus "tough on crime" bill, SB 122. First introduced by Governor Larry Hogan, the legislation initially seemed to enjoy widespread support from Democrats, too, including from Mayor Pugh.
Let's be perfectly clear - SB 122 would move Maryland backwards towards mass incarceration of Black and Brown residents. The bill would increase prison sentences for a swath of crimes that already have harsh penalties under current law. Historically, these kind of backward proposals have disproportionately been used against persons of color. They destroy families and communities -- particularly in Baltimore -- and are fundamentally unfair.
So, why does SB 122 have support from Mayor Pugh and other elected leaders from Baltimore? As calls for the Baltimore Police Department to be disbanded increase, and the Baltimore Consent Decree Monitoring Team is struggling after a year to show substantial reform, how can more law enforcement still be seen as a positive solution? Who is supposed to be the beneficiary of these government investments in racial profiling and mass incarceration strategies?
Amidst all this, I see news headlines saying violent crime is going down in Baltimore. Interesting. Predictive policing and new "tough on crime" laws have not yet been enacted. So, what's different? It seems obvious that the last year of organizing by Baltimore Ceasefire, the grassroots anti-violence, pro-mediation movement, is a big part of it. Their efforts connect people to resources they need and support them in crisis. This strategy radiates positive impacts in neighborhoods struggling to address violence, without further destabilizing families and communities. But Mayor Pugh and other Baltimore electeds have not yet invested taxpayer resources in Baltimore Ceasefire's now-proven efforts.
At the same time, Mayor Pugh has thankfully committed support for the successful Safe Streets program - which employs formerly incarcerated residents to interrupt and prevent violence without police involvement. But the plan she announced in December to expand the program from four to 10 neighborhoods depends on raising $10 million in private philanthropic funds. Why aren't these resources being added as a sustainable funding stream in the City's budget? The Mayor was able to find $14 million more for this year's police budget - even amidst the Gun Trace Task Force scandal - with no private matching funds required.
Disturbingly, state funding for the Safe Streets program was used as a what amounts to a bribe to build support for SB 122 - even though the increased penalties included in the bill would further destabilize Black communities in Baltimore, which of course is what Safe Streets works hard (and well) to counteract. But even the paltry $3.6 million now promised for SB 122 is not yet assured. However, the provisions that would fill prisons by adding more Black and Brown Marylanders continue to have momentum. That's why the Legislative Black Caucus has voted to oppose the bill.
Now, there's less than 5 days until the 2018 General Assembly session ends. It's not too late for our elected leaders to look deep inside, see the implicit bias that is unconsciously guiding decisions towards "solutions" that actually invest in the problem. It's not yet too late to make a better, more proven, more positive choice.
Make your next 24 hours make a difference. TAKE ACTION.