‘Predictive policing’ is a techno-tool of white supremacy
A ShotSpotter predictive policing program in operation within the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Headquarters. | L.E. Baskow / Las Vegas Review-Journal via AP

Hollywood presents artificial intelligence as our inevitable future. In the show, Caprica, the prequel to the epic Battlestar Galactica, which centers on a massive struggle between humans and their robot creations, the Cylons, huge amounts of data are combined to produce artificially intelligent machines based on real human lives.

Beyond science fiction, however, the big data harvesting project has already begun.

Predictive analytics relies on the production of databases of information drawn from wide swaths of information-collecting agencies using the latest technologies. Their creators say they can make useful social predictions like who will need to go to college in the next ten years, what kinds of products will people want, what sorts of healthcare problems may occur that can be prevented now, and the like.

Imperialism and AI

The creators of this process discuss less their more corrupt and dangerous uses, however. In his research, U.K.-based scholar Oliver Belcher has shown that the Pentagon used “predictive analytics” in the early stages of the Vietnam War because its reliance on military “advisors” for information offered little more than racist stereotypes about Vietnamese people and society. Pentagon wonks in the 1960s believed that a data-driven technology could replace this bias and provide objective information to help them properly conduct the war. As it turned out, however, the U.S. waged the war to suppress Vietnamese independence based on a social system of racist imperialism that projected the American system and culture as superior.

This Vietnam-era example of predictive analytics defies a claim in the New Yorker made in 2014 that “big data” was a socialist invention. That article cited the Chilean socialist government’s planning model which, in 1971, it linked to its CybrSyn system. Ironically, the Chilean model—and all socialist planning models—are frequently mocked by pro-capitalist, pro-Washington ideologues as utopian and unworkable. Ultimately, the Washington opponents of Chile’s elected socialist government organized and funded a violent coup that forced Allende out of power and installed the dictator Pinochet. Pinochet’s regime has been credited with launching a neoliberal project at the behest of his Washington-based advisors and killing at minimum 40,000 political prisoners, torturing many thousands more, and forcing hundreds of thousands into exile.

Predictive policing

More recently, a report by Action Center on Race and the Economy (ACRE) shows that capitalist organizations use a variety of means to collect “private human experiences” gathered through interactions on social media, apps, search engines, and other internet conveyances to sell to police agencies to use to identify criminal and potential criminal activity.

Today, with public and corporate grants, city police forces in many parts of the country have deployed new forms of data collecting technologies to enable predictive policing.

Criminal justice scholars Matthew Browning and Bruce Arrigo describe predictive policing as the use of data gathered to create “algorithms … [in] an attempt to predict where crime is likely to occur, who is likely to commit said crimes, and who the likely target or perpetrator of a crime is.”

These predictive algorithms allow police to target people and places with intensified surveillance, police presence, and harassment. Locations, possible targets, and possible perpetrators are highlighted by the algorithm.

It is like Minority Report but with databases and supercomputers instead of psychics.

Research on artificial intelligence also shows that these processes are not objective. Rather they reflect the racist biases of their creators and users.

In cities such as Philadelphia, New York, Oakland, Chicago, Atlanta, and Los Angeles, police are linking up with major information technology corporations like Amazon and others to network police and private sources of information. The result is the deepening of an already powerful surveillance state.

In Detroit, for example, the city spent millions to buy surveillance equipment from DataWorks Plus. That information technology company created a surveillance network for the city and the city’s police force that falsely equates surveillance and the ability to “monitor First Amendment-protected activity” with public safety, according to the ACRE report. Indeed, the ultimate usages of the data created by this surveillance project is unclear.

In late 2020, police officials in Grand Rapids, Mich., demanded the city provide them with several million dollars from COVID-19-related funds to purchase the defective data-gathering surveillance technology known as ShotSpotter. Its creators at Motorola Solutions, a spin-off of the telecom giant, claimed it would help police locate the source of gunshots and lead them to criminal perpetrators. Motorola Solutions currently has 109 contracts with municipalities around the country, usually poorly functioning and unable to “solve” crimes. Meanwhile, its critics note that the devices used are typically located in communities of color and collect data on the daily lives of the people there. Further, no accountability for the use of the data exists.

The real problem is that because police forces have deservedly built up so much mistrust in poor, working-class communities and operate like an invading military, few community members justifiably choose to cooperate with them. Thus, the police want machines for investigative work that human police are simply unable to do.

Fascist consequences

If exposés of Amazon, Facebook, and Google are any sort of guide to understanding the corporate, for-profits usages, this data is likely being developed for purposes like understanding, manipulating, and creating consumer activities and desires.

Big tech companies like Amazon stand to reap massive profits from working together with police. Reports indicate the company intends to incorporate facial recognition software into its Ring doorbell cameras. That possibility has raised privacy and civil liberty concerns about Ring’s video-sharing partnerships with hundreds of police departments around the country.| Jessica Hill / AP

Surveillance technology, such as the proliferation of public video recording devices, “facial recognition” software, “gang databases,” ShotSpotter, and private surveillance devices such as Amazon’s Ring, are enabling large corporations like social media and tech giants to gather valuable data on everyday activities, not just potentially criminal ones. Through new alliances with police forces and massive donations to suspicious “police foundations,” these corporations harvest this data for their own purposes. Even more disturbing, however, is the degree to which police agencies are able to harvest and store data about private individual actions.

This massive interface of monopoly capital and the coercive elements of the state (along with their close ties to the political far right and fascistic elements in the U.S.) aims to normalize the ideological fusion of public safety, surveillance, coercion, and corporate interests. The white supremacist and fascist consequences are obvious.

Coalitions of anti-racist organizers, civil liberties activists, and communities of color are fighting this trend. They are demanding community control of data, ending surveillance of marginalized communities, creating barriers between local police and federal immigration enforcement, bans on facial recognition software, and the protection of privacy of all biometric information collected. In tandem with the larger goal of community control of the police, the transition of many public safety tasks away from the carceral state to social agencies, and defunding and demilitarization of police forces, this struggle aims to separate the role of the police from the private lives of working-class people and communities.

Ideological implications

This trend in law enforcement reveals a major ideological contradiction. Predictive policing is based on the idea that if we have data on the sociological conditions of a place and its people (say, high levels of unemployment, racism, poverty, and poor access to quality education) and combine that information with massive amounts of daily life experiences and interactions, we can predict crime. But instead of resolving the structural conditions and improving the daily life experiences of people, the state allows the police to regard those communities as a target, a problem whose only solution is pre-emptive mass incarceration.

This ideological contraction reveals the true nature of policing and the orientation of the U.S. state. Improving the daily lives of working-class people, recreating a civil society that enables empowerment, economic stability, and generalized social justice defeats the primary objective of capitalism: to create an underclass of super-exploitable people who function as a psychological boost for the upper layers of the working class, a material basis for white privilege, as a “reserve army of labor,” and serve as potential raw resources for incarceration capital.

These contradictions reveal just how crucial today’s struggles for working-class power and its unity really are. A cornerstone of this unity is the fight against systemic and institutional racism. And its building blocks are the concrete fights for a minimum wage hike, for the right to organize unions, for Medicare for All, and a New Deal for education and for revitalizing sustainable communities.

As with all op-eds published by People’s World, this article represents the opinions of its author.


Joel Wendland-Liu
Joel Wendland-Liu

Joel Wendland-Liu teaches courses on diversity, intercultural competence, migration, and civil rights at Grand Valley State University in West Michigan. He is the author of "Mythologies: A Political Economy of U.S. Literature, Settler Colonialism, and Racial Capitalism in the Long Nineteenth Century" (International Publishers) and "The Collectivity of Life" (Lexington Books).