August 4, 2016 by

Panelists Tackle the Tough Questions around Policing and Accountability in the Digital Age

The Policing Project and the Brennan Center for Justice co-hosted “Policing and Accountability in the Digital Age” on September 15th, a conference that addresses the challenges and benefits of rapid advances in policing technologies.  A cohort of academics, law enforcement leaders, activists, and journalists tackled difficult questions about how to make the most of these technologies while respecting individual rights and liberties.  A central question was who should have the ultimate authority to make these difficult decisions.

Bratton at Tech Conference

Commissioner Bratton, © NYU Photo Bureau: Hollenshead

Speaking on his next-to-last day in office, NYPD Commissioner William J. Bratton opened the conference.  Looking over his years of experience, he described the ways that law enforcement had evolved because of, and in response to, technology.  Citing the threats technology poses in areas as diverse as fraud and terrorism, he indicated the ways that technology could assist law enforcement in tackling these threats. Commissioner Bratton gave a shout out to the Policing Project’s work this summer gathering public opinion on the NYPD’s draft body camera policy.  He “agreed that what body cameras will show will benefit all of us,” but recognized the complex questions they pose around storage, privacy, and access.

Policing Project Deputy Director Maria Ponomarenko moderated the first panel, “Mind the Constitutional Gap: Surveillance, Speech, Race, and Religion,” a conversation about how existing constitutional protections often fall short where technology is concerned. Rachel Levinson-Waldman, Senior Counsel for Brennan Center’s Liberty & National Security Program, NYU Law Professor Kathy Strandburg, and NYCLU Senior Staff Attorney Mariko Hirose discussed how policing technologies like mass data collection and stingray devices raise concerns about privacy and chilling the First Amendment rights of targeted individuals. Manhattan District Attorney General Counsel Ben Rosenberg noted, however, that mass data storage associated with these technologies can facilitate oversight to prevent violations of constitutional protections. When Ponomarenko questioned whether courts can be effective regulators of policing technology, Professor Strandburg stressed that it is important to pursue regulatory structures outside of the courts, and credited the Policing Project for doing so.

Maria Ponomarenko, © NYU Photo Bureau: Hollenshead

Maria Ponomarenko, © NYU Photo Bureau: Hollenshead

The second panel “Tweets, Likes, and Law Enforcement” examined how law enforcement is using social media. The key question, according to the NYPD’s Rebecca Ulam Weiner, is how to separate threat signals from the noise. Many on the panel emphasized the challenges that law enforcement confronts in answering that question. The Brennan Center’s Liza Goitein questioned how police can monitor social media without chilling speech. Others worried about discrimination.  Context is all important: Amie Stepanovich of Access Now pointed out that if she tweeted “I’m going to blow up this town” many will assume she is heading out for a night of partying, but others who tweet the same thing may be perceived as threats. In order to properly confront these issues, transparency will be essential, concluded Jumana Musa of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

Over lunch, University of Chicago Crime Lab Director Jens Ludwig taught the assembled about  machine learning, and the costs and benefits of predictive policing. Ludwig argued that algorithms have serious potential to fight crime and improve the criminal justice system, but that law enforcement must be conscious of the technology’s pitfalls. For example, algorithms can facilitate data-driven pretrial determinations and be used to monitor the misconduct of individual officers. However, he stressed the high risk for human error and bias. Conference attendee David Robinson of Team Upturn noted that predictive policing raises serious concerns about discrimination and racial justice. Ludwig responded with a clear imperative: where algorithms perpetuate biased policing, law enforcement and private entities that develop the algorithms must respond.

© NYU Photo Bureau: Hollenshead

© NYU Photo Bureau: Hollenshead

The afternoon’s session’s began with a panel, “Uneasy Partnerships: Private Industry and the Public Trust,” on how to navigate the challenges of public-private partnerships to ensure that what occurs meets the demands of democratic governance and constitutional law. Jim Bueermann of the Police Foundation led off, asking: who do we allow to be the guardians of our communities? What does that mean and how do we measure it? Jeremy Heffner of Hunchlab commented that he would like to see police departments directly involve the public in decisions about technology. Soliciting that kind of public input on new policing technology and policy is an essential part of the Policing Project’s mission.  Moderator Michael Price of the Brennan Center asked whether the effectiveness of surveillance tools matched the rhetoric used to sell them. Jim Bueermann thought not. Strikingly, it was pointed out by Julia Angwin of Pro Publica that streetlights are more effective than surveillance cameras in deterring crime. That may be just one example in which rigorous analysis of the effectiveness of technology may lead to surprising results.  Yet again, there was substantial concern about discrimination perpetuated by these technologies.  As Aliya Rahman of Wellstone put it, if a product is making you over-police certain people or communities, it is a broken product.

Prior to the final panel, there was a “firestarter” discussion on the impact of surveillance on minority neighborhoods. Dante Barry of the Million Hoodies Movement began with a key premise: public safety should be defined by the communities that are policed and not the police themselves. Faiza Patel of the Brennan Center suggested that communities of color deserve to be better educated about the digital surveillance that takes place in their communities. But Linda Sarsour of the Arab American Association of New York insisted that while education is important, it needs to happen from the perspective of lobbying and advocacy. And Anika Navaroli of Color of Change stressed that when we ask how to eliminate biases in the policing of communities of color, we need to focus on broader biases in society, not just in policing.

The last panel, led by Policing Project Director Barry Friedman, asked where we go from here.  He asked the panel – Chief Hassan Aden, Police Foundation Senior Executive Fellow, Larry Byrne, NYPD Deputy Commissioner of Legal Matters,  Judge Alex Kozinski of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, Faiza Patel, Co-Director of the Brennan Center’s Liberty & National Security Program, Magistrate Judge Stephen Smith of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas, and Philip K. Eure, NYC Department of Investigation’s Inspector General for the NYPD – to think creatively about the future of technology in policing and how to balance law enforcement technology with democratic accountability.  Many panelists stressed the need for transparency, and to provide members of policed communities a seat at the table when decisions are made about the use of new technologies.  After a lively conversation, Friedman closed by pointing out that when well-meaning people put their heads together it is possible to reach common ground and find solutions.

Hundreds of people attended the conference, and many more watched online.  The hashtag #PolicingTech trended throughout the day.  Videos of the event can be watched here.