Los Angeles Police Department

Photo Credit: Victoria Smith | Daily Texan Staff

Although “big data” analytics have traditionally been associated with reshaping fields such as finance and healthcare, a recent study suggests that massive amounts of digitized information are also transforming police practices, especially surveillance.

UT sociology assistant professor Sarah Brayne, who conducted the study, first started her work by identifying a police department that employs substantial big data analytics — the Los Angeles Police Department.

“My field work was pretty immersive — I moved out (to Los Angeles) and started doing interviews,” Brayne said. “(Then) I transferred to observations — ride-alongs in cop cars and interviews with different divisions.”

Brayne found numerous ways that big data has both intensified and transformed existing police practices, with both positive and negative implications. Transformations of the existing system include the inclusion of a wider range of individuals in databases and integration of data systems with non-criminal justice institutions.

Although police databases in the past primarily included information regarding individuals who have had prior contact with the police, Brayne said that the thresholds for inclusion are changing.

“What is really transformative in this big data age is that there are all these new kinds of data collection sensors, like automatic license plate readers,” Brayne said. “They collect data on people who never have any contact with the police, but they can be in the law enforcement database.”

Greater integration of data between institutions has also affected police access to data.

“There’s a huge data brokerage industry now, where you have third party data brokers, and people like you, me, LAPD can buy all this data that individuals willingly give out in other contexts, but … sometimes (we) don’t know how much it’s repurposed,” Brayne said.  “A lot of companies we think of (as) having one purpose are increasingly making money … by selling consumer data.”

Pizza chains, for instance, can profit by selling call data to institutions such as police departments.

“The whole data-infrastructure architecture is a bit invisible,” Brayne said.

Big data has also amplified existing trends, such as the shift from reactive policing, or responding to a call for service, to predictive policing, Brayne said.

“One way of (reducing crime) is to stop crime before it even starts,” Brayne said. “Instead of just responding to crime that has already occurred, it involves actually predicting where crime is likely to occur and having police presence in that area in order to deter crime from occurring in the first place.”

Austin Police Department Assistant Chief Troy Gay said that predictive policing has helped reduce crime in Austin.

“Predictive policing is something that law enforcement agencies are trying to move toward,” Gay said. “There are (crimes) that provide more measurement and information to our department to allow us to deploy our resources more effectively, because the number one deterrent of crime is officer presence.”

Big data has permitted predictive policing to become easier. For instance, police departments can tabulate the frequency of crime based on location and predict where crime is more likely to occur. Individual officers can spend more time in higher-risk areas, which can reduce crime, Gay said.

“That’s why it’s important that the agency is using data to make sure we are providing our community with a service,” Gay said.

On the other hand, Brayne and Gay both recommend that big data-fueled predictions be treated with caution.

“One of the main challenges with predictive policing is the feedback loop that can occur,” Brayne said. “You have historical crime data that suggests you should focus on these people and places, so you then focus your police resources on those people and places and (as a result) you get the crime data that reinforces this pattern.”

Mitigating this potential pitfall means understanding that the results of data analysis are not complete reflections of reality and are influenced by social processes, Brayne said.

“The best case scenarios were when the leaders in particular divisions were careful in how they roll out data,” Brayne said. “The worst case scenario was either completely ignoring data or jumping into data and thinking it was perfect and truth.”

Gay added that forging strong relationships with the community is also central to crime reduction.

“Too often we miss that you can’t rely on data alone,” Gay said. “You have to rely on intentional relationships with your community. You need to work with the community to help come up with your priorities and discuss strategies.”

In preparation for UTPD Chief of Police Robert Dahlstrom’s retirement in May, a committee in charge of overseeing the selection of UT’s next chief has narrowed their search to four final applicants. 

The committee, made up of numerous city, University and law enforcement officials, selected the finalists from a pool of 75 applicants. Each candidate is college-educated and has more than 20 years of experience in law enforcement, according to a UTPD press release. 

The finalists include Austin Police Department Assistant Chief of Police David Carter, Captain Melissa Zak of the Los Angeles Police Department, Miami University Chief of Police John McCandless and APD Assistant Chief of Police Raul Munguia. 

Carter has worked with APD for 29 years and has served as an assistant chief of police since 2007. Zak is a commanding officer with 21 years of experience who oversaw the Southwest region of Los Angeles. McCandless has 31 years of experience in law enforcement and has served as Miami University chief of police for nine years. Munguia has 26 years of experience and has served as an assistant chief of police for APD since 2010. 

Dahlstrom will end his seven-year stint as chief of police on a high note. In his time with UTPD, the department received accreditation with the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement in 2007 and the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement in 2008. Dahlstrom was voted police chief of the year by UT System directors in 2012 for exhibiting “leadership and quiet strength.” 

According to the press release, a series of two-hour public question-and-answer sessions with each finalist will be held throughout April. The candidates will take the public’s questions and discuss the future of UTPD. The sessions will be broadcast via a livestream provided by the University Office of the Associate Vice President for Campus Safety and Security

The first session will take place on April 5 at 1:30 p.m. The others are scheduled for April 9, 23 and 26.

Beginning July 1, an amendment to the Austin Police Department’s mission statement will instruct all employees to preserve human life, especially in instances calling for use of deadly force.

Assistant Police Chief Sean Mannix said Police Chief Art Acevedo approved the changes to APD’s mission statement May 15 and the language will officially be implemented next month. Mannix said the new language will clarify the police department’s central philosophy but will not change how police officers operate or how they are held accountable for their use of force.

“As a law enforcement practitioner, I don’t think the language in the policy manual is going to change our operations,” Mannix said. “The protection and preservation of life has always been the cornerstone of our philosophy. We’ve just gone the extra step putting it in the beginning or our mission statement.”

Once enacted, the revised mission statement will read: “The protection of life is the primary core value and guiding principle of the Austin Police Department. As such, all employees will strive to preserve human life while recognizing that duty may require the use of deadly force, as a last resort, after other reasonable alternatives have failed or been determined impractical.”

Rudolph Williams, president of the Austin Center for Justice and Peace, said adding new language is a tacit acknowledgement by APD that the department is under pressure to improve its record of using deadly force.

“[Adding the ‘preservation of life’ statement] is like an alcoholic admitting that he’s an alcoholic without going through the 12 step program yet,” Williams said.

Williams said the police department needs to add more detail to its “preservation of life” statement. He said APD should follow the lead of the Los Angeles Police Department by including objective guidelines for when an officer can and cannot use force.

“The rules have to be objective so that they can be assessed by APD’s internal affairs department or by the district attorney,” Williams said. “If an officer shot a suspect who was in a car, an internal affairs officer could look at the rules and say, ‘Did you use the loudspeaker before approaching the vehicle?’ The officer would then have to explain why they didn’t use that method and could be easily held accountable.”

Debbie Russell, an activist affiliated with the Austin Center for Peace and Justice, said she hopes the new language is a first step in reforming APD’s use of deadly force.

“[Austin residents] have a citizen review panel, we have a more engaged citizenry, we have the means to apply pressure and make police officers more accountable,” Russell said. “If Police Chief Acevedo buys into this and says it’s more than a [public relations] stunt, then we can change things here and make things safer for both citizens and officers, who, if they take less risk, will not be harmed as often.”

Mannix said the department’s critics cannot be satisfied, no matter how its policy manual is changed.

“[APD’s critics] would like the department to go beyond what the Supreme Court has determined,” Mannix said.

In many cases, the Supreme Court has ruled police officers may use deadly force if they feel their life is threatened as well as in varying situations.

“Hindsight is 20-20,” Mannix said. “Critics would like us to use a policy to order back officers as if there was [always] a different avenue of action. You can’t look at it that way.”

Police helicopters circled overhead and several Longhorns spent some of the last moments of their semester in the UTLA program in handcuffs after a misunderstanding with police last week.

The Los Angeles Police Department rushed to a liquor store in North Hollywood after receiving a call that mistook a student film shoot for a burglary in progress. The officers were called out to the scene before they were informed of the filming permit, said Sgt. William Mann of LAPD’s North Hollywood division. He said no arrests were made.

“I don’t know of anything like this in the recent past, but it’s not surprising that something like this would happen,” he said.

Radio-television-film senior Shayan Asgharnia was working audio when he heard a megaphone outside of the store and saw a cop car outside. After being asked to walk backwards out of the building one-by-one with their hands in the air, each person was handcuffed and questioned. The police let them go after hearing all corroborating stories and being shown the filming permit.

“They were incredibly professional,” Asgharnia said. “LAPD, despite any kind of history they’ve had, they were incredibly nice. One of them was even like, ‘This happens all the time.’”

Several customers had arrived at the store and were told to leave because the students had paid for their filming time there. One old woman knocked and then came back when the ordeal was ending, and the students suspect that she was the one who dialed 9-1-1 despite being shown the cameras and equipment, Asgharnia said.

The students were told that the organization who provided the permit would inform the police, but evidently, they did not, Asgharnia said.

“It was one of those moments where it was a little surreal, but at the same time, there was humor in it, probably because we didn’t buy that it was actually happening,” he said. “We were in our last week of UTLA. We ended it with a bang without a literal gunshot.”

Francisco Cortez, assistant manager of the House of Ambrose liquor store, was on duty the night the students came in to film the robbery scene. The store was closed, but someone must have seen the actors from outside and called the police, he said.

“Even helicopters and news helicopters came,” he said. “They had handcuffs on every person in the store. They had shotguns and all kinds of guns pointing at everybody. They meant business.”

Printed on Monday, November 28, 2011: UTLA students' film shoot mistaken for real burglary