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Chicago Police ‘custom notifications’: Is it profiling?

Under their “custom notifications” program, Chicago police try to forestall shootings by visiting and talking to people identified as likely to be involved in violence before anything happens.

The idea is to try to prevent crime instead of chasing it after it happens. But it raises the question in some quarters: Isn’t this racial profiling? Don’t the people on the receiving end of police visits have a legitimate beef about being harassed when they haven’t necessarily done anything?

When authorities profile a person, it means singling out a person who isn’t doing anything wrong but is a member of larger class that is perceived as likely to commit crimes.

But the Chicago program targets people whose backgrounds include criminal transgressions and is designed in part to make sure they know the legal risks of continuing such behavior. The program, which is strongly supported by Police Supt. Garry McCarthy, also is designed to link them up to support services to keep them out of trouble.

So far, custom notifications have been done in six police districts that together are home to hundreds of thousands of people, yet the police have made only 50 contacts. Chicago authorities would argue that if that’s profiling, it certainly isn’t indiscriminate profiling.

Police don’t think they know who is going to commit crimes, but now believe they can identify who is at high risk.

“This is saying these are people whose behavior and relationships tell us with real confidence that they are at very high risk, and we are going to go try to let them know that and help them,” said David M. Kennedy, director of the Center for Crime Prevention and Control at the New York-based John Jay College of Criminal Justice, which is working with Chicago police. “These encounters are designed very carefully to be respectful. If people don’t want to engage in a conversation, they don’t have to.”

”These encounters are designed very carefully to be respectful. If people don’t want to engage in a conversation, they don’t have to.”

People who get the custom notifications don’t always understand their legal positions. For past offenses, they may have been given probation or some other form of a second chance. They don’t necessarily understand the way the law works, which is that when they get to a certain point, they are facing stiff penalties.

For example, federal law says that if you have certain felonies in your criminal history and you get caught with a gun you can be prosecuted as a career armed criminal and you face a minimum of 15 years in prison. Knowing that ahead of time might be a deterrent, but many people in that position probably don’t know that.

“Part of this process is to say to people, ‘We want you to understand your own situation, because if you don’t you can’t possibly make informed decisions,’ ” Kennedy said.

Critics, though, say the program needs more transparency. Without knowing the facts that are input and the process of the predictive analytics that produce a list of people to be contacted, it’s not possible to know whether the program is fair, they say.

“Let us assume it has a disparate racial impact — then the burden is on government to justify that impact and to explain that they need to do that in the manner that they do it in order to justify a legitimate outcome,” one observer said.

Also, custom notifications might not achieve anything that competent officers in a good community policing program couldn’t do on their own, the observer said.

Read a Feb. 26, 2014, Chicago Sun-Times editorial here.

Read a Sept.24, 2012 Chicago Sun-Times news story here.

Read a Feb. 19, 2014, Matt Stroud blog post here.

Read a Feb. 25,2014, Cory Doctorow blog post here.