Thanks to a Sun-Times story published last week, Chicagoans now have valuable new information about a data tool the Chicago police believe will reveal who is primarily at risk for violence.
Claims about powerful data tools capable of predicting future violence have been the stuff of enough movies to seem familiar to the public, reassuring anyone who forgets how those science-fiction tales end.
Previously, city officials maintained a “Strategic Subject List” of only about 1,500 high-risk people. But officials would often claim at the close of bloody weekends that up to 85 percent of those involved were list members.
Neither the math nor the confidence of the city’s statements checks out — especially since 91 percent of the city’s over 4,300 shootings did not end in an arrest by the end of 2016. And we now find that this “Strategic Subject List” database is far larger than originally thought, containing the names of almost 400,000 individuals, and growing.
In defending the size and sweep of the database, Chicago Police Department spokesman Anthony Guglielmi remarked, “Like a credit score, the SSL is simply a tool that calculates risk. … Individuals only really come on our radar with scores of 250 and above.”
But, 214,757 Chicago men under age 50 have scores that high – out of only 700,000 total male residents 15-49. So (depending on how many children 14 and under may be on the list) up to 30 percent of Chicago’s men in that age group are “on police radar” – and over half of them are African-American. What gets you there? Any arrest for any offense will put you on the list, though other things do, too – like being the victim of a violent crime.
The only public study of the list did not find it to be effective in predicting or disrupting future violence. Even if it were, it could most fairly be called a roster of potential victims in need of the social services that have vanished along with city and state funding. Instead, the list is often used to support the City of Chicago’s blame-shifting, get-tough rhetoric, like Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s support for statewide sentencing increases for unlicensed gun possession, and Ald. Raymond Lopez’s controversial remarks about two siblings who were killed (“no innocent lives were lost”).
Even as the policy director of a legal clinic representing young people in conflict with the law, I can’t tell you what it really means to have a score over 250. Will police share that fact with your boss? Your landlord? Give you extra surveillance? Take extra time during a traffic stop? Put an asterisk next to your name when a prosecutor decides whether or not to cut you a break? We already know that some will put an asterisk next to your death; if you fall victim to a violent crime, yours may not be an innocent enough death to permit mourning by some officials.
If one in three Chicago men under age 50 have a failing “crime score,” we all need to be concerned. Unlike a credit score, there’s no annual free report to review for errors such as mistaken identity, much less to challenge the criteria used to assess whether you (or your family) are a “good risk” or not. Good luck even finding out whether you’re in that database.
Most of all, we should be concerned about what the list size, composition and use say about our values. Chicago is hurting. There are ways we can do better and they include using public money to build up the people of Chicago, not the systems that surveil them.
While City Hall is eager to blame Springfield, there is much the city itself can be doing: Reduce racial gaps in jobs and education. Use public health approaches to prevent violence. Rely less on unproven mandatory minimum prison terms that return people in worse shape than before. And immediately implement all of those year-old police reform recommendations so the public knows what kind of accountability the officers who feed these databases and use these watchlists are subject to.
There’s been more than enough big talk. It’s time for real bravery.
Stephanie Kollmann is the policy director at the Children and Family Justice Center, Bluhm Legal Clinic, Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law and she is a Public Voices Fellow through The OpEd Project.