What’s Your Score

Police, even more so than most people, tend to be lazy. And like other lazy people police are trying to replace everything with algorithms. But there is a difference between police relying on algorithms and private entities: algorithms in private hands seldom lead to people being killed. A higher death rate is the only outcome I can see coming from this:

FRESNO, Calif. — While officers raced to a recent 911 call about a man threatening his ex-girlfriend, a police operator in headquarters consulted software that scored the suspect’s potential for violence the way a bank might run a credit report.

The program scoured billions of data points, including arrest reports, property records, commercial databases, deep Web searches and the man’s social- media postings. It calculated his threat level as the highest of three color-coded scores: a bright red warning.

Algorithms that try to model human behavior are notoriously unreliable. Part of this is due to humanity’s lack of homogeneity and part of it is due to data limitations. An algorithm is only as good as the data it is fed. What data is fed into an algorithm is determined by the developers, which means the results often reflect their biases. In this case if the developers viewed gun owners as being prone to violence the algorithm would end up reflecting that.

Usually we don’t pay much attention when an algorithm screws up and recommends a product to us based on our previous purchasing history that we have no interest in. But an algorithm that tries to estimate a person’s threat level to police is going to carry much more dire consequences. There is already a chronic problem with police being too trigger happy. Imagine how much more trigger happy your average cop would be if they were told the suspect is rated high by the threat assessment algorithm. Chances are the officer will go for a shoot first and ask questions later approach.

Theoretically this type of algorithm wouldn’t have to result in such severe consequences but it is being utilized by individuals who are generally not held accountable for their actions. If an officer, for example, received notification that the suspect was rated is highly likely to be violent but knew gunning them down without cause would result in charges they would likely act more cautiously but still not resort to shooting without justification. But that’s not how things are this is will likely end badly for anybody facing off with an officer employed by a department that utilizes this system.