The Pasco County (FL) Sheriff’s Office decided to bring some of its predictive policing nonsense indoors. It also started looking for smaller targets. The program used to harass residents over things like uncut lawns and missing mailbox numbers was extended to schoolchildren, who were subjected to the same sort of spreadsheet bullshit. Low grades? Miss a few school days? Victim of domestic violence?
According to the Pasco County Sheriff “juvenile intelligence analysts,” these were all risk factors that could signify future criminal behavior. The Sheriff claimed it wasn’t trying to pre-crime children, but its own documentation said “analysts” should use the so-called “predictors” to “identify at-risk youth who are destined to a life of crime.”
Not only is the program arguably morally wrong, it’s also generally wrong. Predictive policing rarely works as intended since it relies on skewed data. Those inputs produce more skewed data, sending officers into the same areas they already believe criminal activity will occur and aims them at the same people they’ve already assumed are criminals. It’s basically confirmation_bias.xls. But this program targets kids and uses data it’s not clear the Sheriff’s Office has any legal right to access.
That means the program may also be legally wrong. As in “illegal.” Analysis of the program and the data-sharing agreements with schools by student privacy advocates resulted in the determination that this access to student data without parental consent violated FERPA (Family Education Rights and Privacy Act) — a federal student privacy law passed in 1974.
This conclusion prompted Congressional reps to step in and request a federal investigation into Pasco County’s pee-wee league pre-crime program. Four months after that request was made by Representative Robert C. Scott, the US Department of Education is moving forward with its review of the program.
The Tampa Bay Times reported in November that the school district shared information on student grades, discipline and attendance with the Sheriff’s Office, which used the data to compile a secret list of schoolchildren it believed could “fall into a life of crime.”
The federal education department is now looking into the arrangement, a spokesman said Friday.
The investigation follows calls for a review by U.S. Rep. Robert C. Scott, who leads the House Committee on Education and Labor. In a statement, Scott said he was “encouraged” that the education department had accepted his request. He called the Pasco program “disturbing.”
Now that the federal government is involved, the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office appears to be hastily revising its program. While it still claims the program does not label kids as criminals (despite what its own documentation says), it has started to change what data it accesses and how it obtains that access.
The law enforcement agency said that deputies, who serve in the role as school resource officers, do have access to student grades. But the agency said for the first time that students were being added to any list for review only if they had committed a crime. Aside from its school resource deputies, the agency said that Sheriff’s Office employees can see whether a student has been flagged by the district’s early warning system — not whether they had been flagged for a specific reason, such as grades or attendance.
Starting to do the right thing after months of negative press and multiple investigations isn’t really doing the right thing. It’s just damage control. But the Sheriff’s Office already spent months or years screwing up and that’s going to still come to light even if it’s not trying to stop violating federal regulations.
And the Sheriff’s Office still seems pretty defensive for an agency that believes it’s done nothing wrong. Rather than simply defer comment until the investigation concludes, the Sheriff’s Office issued a multi-paragraph comment to the Tampa Bay Times that starts out by attacking the credibility of the paper whose initial report was based entirely on the Sheriff Office’s own documents.
We have no additional comment beyond what was previously provided to the Tampa Bay Times. However, we’re proud of our partnership with Pasco County Schools and the work our members do to ensure safety to students, staff and families in our community. Additionally, I’m providing you with the below, which details much of the misinformation the Times has misconstrued through the course of their reporting and sets the record straight on facts vs slant.
As always, it is our sincere hope that the Times uses this opportunity to set the record straight on their own reporting and the previous fallacies they’ve published.
The statement does its own misleading by claiming the things the Sheriff’s Office is doing now are the things it has always done, despite that clearly not being the case. It’s trying to backdate its culpability with this statement and that may work for small parts of the court of public opinion, but it’s not going to change the course of the ongoing investigation.
Even if one is inclined to take the Sheriff’s Office at its word, the fact that it “only” determined 330 students to be “at risk” for future criminal behavior is still disturbing. While identifying at-risk students can be helpful and perhaps head off future criminal acts, the Office’s predictive policing program mainly serves up constant harassment to anyone selected by the software as a potential criminal. Rather than deter criminal activity, the program makes it impossible for people to break free of the criminal justice deathcycle by subjecting them to meaningless citations, extra court appearances, and frequent visits from deputies who apparently have nothing better to do with their time.
This sort of harassment isn’t going to help at-risk students. And it will definitely negatively impact those caring for them, making it all the more likely something already tenuous will break completely, resulting in further hardship for everyone involved. The Pasco Sheriff’s Office had made it clear it’s not there to help. It has openly stated the program is there to harass people into suing or moving. And it thinks it okay to direct this same attitude at kids.