40 Futures is a speculative fiction series about the criminal justice system.
“Dude, what are you doing?!” Officer Chien punched his right arm forward as if ushering the police cruiser through the intersection. “Don’t stop!”
Officer Reynolds bristled as he brought the car to a standstill.
“There’s a stop sign!” Reynolds indicated with a flip of his hand.
The red octagon sat just above Chien’s passenger side window, clear as day. Hovering above it were signs for Division and Wilson streets, from a bird’s eye view the signs’ X marked this spot in West Baltimore. Each side of the street was lined with century old row homes, red brick piled 30 feet high, skinny four-pane windows with white trim running up the front of each.
“Are you new?” Chien asked his partner of 16 months. “You can’t brake like that and expect your performance raise next spring.”
“Ugh,” protested Reynolds, “Is this more of that public safety score nonsense? Listen, the little chip in the engine picks up everything you do, and you get rewarded or punished for it. Stopping at a stop sign--literally following the rules--is the very thing that gets rewarded.”
A car pulled up behind the cruiser and waited. A beat passed before Reynolds stuck his arm outside the window into the crisp fall air and waived the vehicle by. The driver was cautious, looking to avoid unwanted attention. He half waived, but didn’t linger. Neither officer noticed.
“How have we not talked about this yet?” Chien asked, confounded. “That ‘little chip’ is dumb. It doesn’t know there’s a stop sign here, it just knows that you hit the brakes too hard. Just roll through stop signs and accelerate through yellow lights—it’ll make your life easier.”
Reynolds gripped the wheel tighter and arched his wrists up as he considered how public safety had become a shell game. Instead of balls and cups, however, he played with reports and numbers.
“OK, so say you are correct,” Reynolds rolled the cruiser into motion and took a left onto the 500 block of Wilson St. “What other ways can you play with the score?”
“That’s the big one that I know of,” he paused. “Oh! Watch your ass in the bougie neighborhoods—Roland Park, Mount Washington.”
Reynolds laughed and shook his head, “Why? Are the doctors and lawyers of this fair city setting their own speed traps?”
“It’s an insurance thing--actual tables,” said Chien looking out the window as they rolled past a stoop sale, bright clothes twisted on plastic hangers next to old speakers and worn chairs.
“You mean, actuarial tables?” Reynolds smugly asked.
“Yeah, math,” Chien dismissed the correction. “A knocked over mailbox in Roland Park is going to be more expensive and more hassle than running over some poor schmuck’s barbecue in Sandtown. The lawyers and doctors are going to get more because they make noise. That creates headaches that you just don’t get in West Baltimore—unless someone actually gets hurt, of course.”
“What does that have to do with the scores?” Reynolds asked.
“The department doesn’t want to deal with some rich idiot thinking they’re owed,” Chien’s tone was irritated at explaining the obvious. “So, the powers-that-be make it worse for you, Mr. Peace Officer, if you get caught driving like a maniac in the nicer neighborhoods.”
“Wait, I--,” Reynolds looked over at Chien. “But, it costs a rich family and a poor family the same amount of money to buy a new mailbox or get a grill.”
Reynold’s comment hung in the cab as the patrol car crossed over the tree-lined demarcation between West Baltimore and Bolton Hill, a preserved 19th century gem populated with art students.
“Sure, but all injuries being equal,” shrugged Chien, “a rich person’s is just worth more.”
Links from the Podcast
Runaway feedback loops in predictive policing. (Proceedings of Machine Learning Research)
Algorithmic justice: Algorithms and big data in criminal justice settings. (European Journal of Criminology)
Juking the Stats. (The Wire)
Papers by Bryan Casey. (SSRN)