That was quick

Predictive policing shows City Hall moves fast when it wants to

Not even a week after the City Council, in a decision that was somewhat surprising to me in a good way, sent the Shotspotter Connect program to the public safety subcommittee for further interrogation instead of just approving it, a public safety subcommittee meeting has been called! The first one since August!

They went without meeting for half a year and now that the subcommittee stands between the cops and a new toy, they’re showing us the meaning of haste. 

There’s a very simple reason why, and the reason is that Councilor Kate Toomey is the chairwoman of the public safety subcommittee, so she gets to decide when they meet and to a certain extent what they meet about. Toomey is 100 percent politically aligned with the Worcester Police Department and the associated unions. The police unions could not have a better pawn in a better position, and as such she’s the top vote getter on the council every year because that’s how politics work in this city, sadly enough. That the mayor has assigned her to the position of public safety chair for the better part of five years now despite familial ties to law enforcement and a deeply deferential position to the department. What I’m saying is that the public safety chairmanship might be the best position an elected official in this city can have to apply pressure on the police department and the person sitting in that chair is wholly uninterested in doing that.

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So now that a proposal to give the cops $150,000 for an artificial intelligence software that optimizes racist policing patterns needs to pass through her subcommittee, she calls a meeting near instantly. 

The subcommittee will meet on Monday, Feb. 1, at 5 p.m. and yes, we should be just as loud about this as we were at the initial meeting last Tuesday (great work everyone!). There’s also not an agenda yet but it’s no big secret what they’ll be meeting about. Toomey has also called a second meeting, for Wednesday, Feb. 10, and there’s no agenda for that either. 

As I wrote about last week, adopting artificial intelligence software to help the police more efficiently patrol neighborhoods and “forecast” where crime happens is a really bad idea that will streamline policing patterns that are already racist if not in design than certainly in application. Spending just shy of $200,000 a year on said program is increasing the police department’s budget which is the very opposite of what we should be doing we should be drawing it down and putting that money to better use elsewhere.

I called Toomey this afternoon and she took my call which is a little surprising she must not read my work but we talked for about 15 minutes of which seven or so was more of an argument. 

The useful information from the call is as follows: the meeting on Feb. 1 will be a review of the Shotspotter Connect program followed by comments and questions from the public. After, the subcommittee will review six other police items including the body camera program. The meeting on Feb. 10 will be for whatever spills over. 

And here’s a bit of the less useful but nonetheless instructive information like how Toomey feels about police using artificial intelligence (she loves it).

“To use a sports analogy, it’s enabling the police department to use their offense instead of always being on the defense,” she told me.

Uh… check please! I do not want the police “enabled” to do much of anything let alone “use their offense.” Whatever she meant by that I would like exactly none of it.

I asked her what she makes of the criticism that predictive policing technology reinforces and streamlines patterns of policing that are inherently racist. 

“Again, it’s using geographic data. I think when you start identifying race and gender etc. in your data that’s a different story. This is not including any of that information. This is just an incident and geography,” she said. 

“Right,” I replied, “but the geography of the city…”

“It’s not the same thing.”

She asked me a question. “What do people recommend that the police uses in order to be able to deploy officers?”

I told her the concern about the program is one, more money for the police that we should be spending elsewhere and two, predictive policing and artificial intelligence streamlines and reinforces patterns of policing that are already targeting certain races more than others. 

“There’s no race data used in this program,” she said. 

“Right,” I replied, “but it’s geographic data. And the racial makeup of the city has a lot to do with that.”

“But what if you had a lot of car break-ins on the West Side,” she said. “It’s not identifying race.”

“It’s not identifying race necessarily, but it’s using geographic data and the geography of the city is racially divided.”

A little later in the conversation, she said “I fail to see how geography and incidents alone becomes bias,” a line which to me betrays that she does not understand at all how police bias works and it would be nice to have a chairman of the police subcommittee with more solid grasp on this stuff wouldn’t it?

Here’s a little passage from an article on predictive policing in MIT’s Technology Review to chew on as we go through this conversation. 

“Police like the idea of tools that give them a heads-up and allow them to intervene early because they think it keeps crime rates down, says Rashida Richardson, director of policy research at the AI Now Institute. But in practice, their use can feel like harassment. Researchers have found that some police departments give officers “most wanted” lists of people the tool identifies as high risk. This first came to light when people in Chicago reported that police had been knocking on their doors and telling them they were being watched. In other states, says Richardson, police were warning people on the lists that they were at high risk of being involved in gang-related crime and asking them to take actions to avoid this. If they were later arrested for any type of crime, prosecutors used the prior warning to seek higher charges. “It's almost like a digital form of entrapment, where you give people some vague information and then hold it against them,” she says.”

“Wouldn’t you want police to respond in an efficient manner and in a timely manner if something is happening in your neighborhood?” she asked.

It went on and on like that and at one point I told her “more efficient and more streamlined policing is rife with problems” and she repeated that line twice and asked me to explain it and I told her that I don’t think police presence makes neighborhoods safer at all—in fact quite the opposite. 

She also told me that her subcommittee hasn’t met since August because she’s been waiting on more information from the city manager and from the state and she said “I’m not trying to be an obstructionist. That’s not who I am.” And it might very well be the case that she wasn’t trying to be an obstructionist but it’s instructive here to see how they can move very quickly on the things they want to do and they can move very very slowly on the things they do not. 

You can listen to the whole thing here if you can tolerate the sound of my fingers clacking on the keyboard. 

Let’s just say we didn’t come to an understanding.

Toomey is going to support this program and I’m pretty sure Donna Colorio, one of the other three members of the committee, will as well. Sarai Rivera, the third member, is on the fence leaning toward a no, giving us a 2-1 situation in favor of approving predictive policing. But another strong showing at this meeting next Monday will go a long way. And, of course, it has to go back to the full city council again, and on the full body, support for the program is more mixed. Councilors Khrystian King, Sarai Rivera, George Russell, Sean Rose and Gary Rosen all indicated they’re not entirely prepared to support the program. That’s five out of 11! Not bad! It is entirely possible that we could get a rare win on this one, but we need to be loud and on top of it. 

One question that deserves more attention is why the money for this is coming from the City Manager’s contingency fund and not the police’s existing budget? Is it such an emergency that the police have this new tool that it needs to come from the fund we save for emergencies? Are we not living through a moment you could safely call one rolling, unpredictable emergency? And why now? Why are we moving on this program now, after the yearly budget has already been passed? And does it have anything to do with the fact that the city and police union are currently negotiating a contract? Yes, no, maybe so. 

I was talking to some city hall people who Know These Things at a bar the other day and I asked that question, the one about why this is coming out of the manager’s contingency fund. Really good question was the response I got.

As always credit where credit is due to Defund WPD, which is leading the charge on this front and doing great work. I really appreciate this bit from their last message on the matter. 

“In the wake of George Floyd’s murder last Spring, our city government promised reforms to the WPD. Instead, it has continued to accept the status quo: increasing the police budget, stonewalling investigations into police officer misconduct, avoiding discussions with the Board of Health, and remaining silent when the police chief claimed racism doesn’t exist in the WPD (even as multiple lawsuits demonstrate otherwise). Now, not only has city government increased the $53 million police budget by another $150,000, but it attempted to do so by side-stepping the transparency requirements of the budgetary process. We hope the Worcester community continues to join us in encouraging local government steer money away from policing and towards education, employment, housing, and public health.”

How long can this city go on pretending it doesn’t have a problem? You can plug your ears and say lalalala for a little while but eventually you’re going to run out of breath. 


I hope this post has helped keep you abreast of the local issues, and yes I’m saying that weird on purpose. Please consider subscribing if you like my work and want to make me a happy boy. Plus I had to talk to Kate Toomey today for 15 minutes and I did that for you. You owe me. 

There hasn’t been so much in the way of news that’s all that interesting, but something I admittedly have not been following as closely as I should is the climate activism front. Sunrise Movement Worcester has been doing great work pressing the city to do better with its plan for meeting certain environmental goals. At the meeting last week, speakers from the group linked environmental justice with gentrification and displacement, an idea I’d like to explore a little further soon. 

As far as the City Council goes, this week there’s not a whole lot of note. Councilor Gary Rosen filed an order to see about getting some porta potties because he thinks homeless people are threats to public health (translation: gross). 

And Councilor Moe Bergman wants to let dogs back onto the City Common for the benefit of the “new residents” down there, a courtesy I’m sure has nothing to do with the socioeconomic makeup of these new residents versus the residents there before.