Police, Violence, and the Idolatry of Data

This morning NPR featured a story from Chicago about police becoming more cautious as a result of increased public scrutiny. The idea here is that post-Ferguson, when it has become common for police misconduct to be captured on video, police are less likely to get involved in situations that could turn ugly. Our mayor has recently advanced this same theory to explain the rise in gun violence our city is experiencing.

Photo credit: John W. Iwanski.
Photo credit: John W. Iwanski.

In other words, the reason certain communities are suffering increased violence is because those same communities are looking for ways to protect themselves from violence. This, as best I can tell, is the logic.

About halfway through the story a former Chicago police officer is interviewed. This officer remembers a time when community policing was a priority, when neighbors knew and respected their beat cop. I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve heard similar things from neighbors and community leaders. But community policing programs are no longer a priority, ostensibly because they cost too much and our city is too broke. In place of officer-community relationships that were built over time, Chicago, like so many cities, now relies on big data to fight crime. Our mayor and police superintendent praise the ability of data to predict crime and stop it preemptively. Stop-and-frisk is viewed as a reasonable and even necessary tactic within the logic of big data, despite its inherently discriminatory nature.

Old-school community policing is never mentioned by our city leaders as a realistic response to violence despite the benefits to those who suffer the most from our city’s violence. Why? Because our city, like most of us, have believed the lies promised by technology. Technology, in the form of data-driven policing strategies, promises to save us money because software and a few number-crunchers are cheaper than employing trusted women and men to police specific neighborhoods. Technology has also promised to do the hard work of policing better with machines than can be done by people.

But these are lies and we’ve believed them because technology is our beloved idol. The data does save the city money, but the cost is passed on exponentially to the communities that are suffering violence. And data does allow the police department to operate efficiently on paper, but this efficiency is unjust and harmful to those who are sliced, diced, and generalized, to those whose experience of the data is not efficient but discriminatory.

It’s not surprising that the communities suffering violence are being blamed for this year’s increased shootings and murder. It’s not surprising but neither is it true. And only by worshipping at technology’s altar could we believe that those suffering our city’s violence can also be blamed for it.

Author: David Swanson

Pastor of New Community Covenant Church in Bronzeville. Collecting signs of life.

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