Philip K. Dick wrote The Minority Report in 1956. When Steven Spielberg turned it into a film in 2002, he flipped around many of the characters and inverted a good deal of the plot, but he kept the basic ideas behind Dick’s novella—a “precrime” system that uses predictions about the future to arrest people before they commit a crime. It’s an idea that absolutely violates both notions of free will and any reasonable conception of justice. It’s also an idea that is apparently so attractive that people keep trying to make it happen in real life.
Police departments across the nation have signed on to services that supposedly provide “predictive policing,” using existing data and (supposedly) artificial intelligence to tell them where to position patrols and by judges to set sentences on offenders. As might be expected, since these systems start with a racially imbalanced dataset and extend it, multiple studies have indicated that they are racist right down to their algorithms, and have actually increased inequality in justice and violence in policing.
Even so, a candidate for Florida sheriff went all-in on predictive policing in 2011. And after a decade, actually promising to stop crime before it happens. A decade later, the results are amazing … but not in a good way.
Pasco County Sheriff Chris Nocco ran for office promising to drive his department with a “cutting-edge intelligence program,” and anyone visiting that department in 2020 would have to believe he meant it. Nocco created an intelligence department that includes 30 crime-busting programmers and analysts—more people than the total number of employees in many sheriff departments.
However, as an extensive investigation from the Tampa Bay Times shows, the outcome has not been exactly all roses, no guns. Because Nocco hasn’t stopped with trying to predict crime before it happens. He’s determined to carry out persecution of people who haven’t committed a crime—and to convict them of something, even if it’s nothing.
As the Times reports, what Nocco has created isn’t so much a machine that keeps the citizens of Pasco County safe. Instead his department has become “a system of organized harassment.” When the equivalent of Minority Report’s “red ball” turns up naming someone as a potential criminal, deputies from Nocco’s department respond in force.
They swarm homes in the middle of the night, waking families and embarrassing people in front of their neighbors. They write tickets for missing mailbox numbers and overgrown grass, saddling residents with court dates and fines. They come again and again, making arrests for any reason they can.
In the case of one kid, who was 15 and had a single arrest for stealing bikes, Pasco Sheriff’s deputies appeared at his home 21 times in a year. They also appeared at his school. And at his mother’s job. And even at his gym. Not because he had done anything, but because their system said he was a “target.”
As a deputy described it, the purpose of the program is to “Make their lives miserable until they move or sue.” But just because they move out of Pasco County, Florida, doesn’t mean they’ve escaped harassment from Nocco’s precrime unit. Families across the country have found out that Nocco can still pursue them, even when they are several states away from Nocco’s supposed jurisdiction.
The system doesn’t start with actual crimes. It starts with a list of people considered “likely to break the law.” This list appears to be based in part on past arrests, but it also includes a secret sauce of other data and analysis that Nocco will not reveal. Then the sheriff’s department actually sends out deputies to find and interrogate people not just without a search warrant, but without evidence of any crime. In just the last five years, deputies from Pasco county have chased down “targets” with no identified crime at least 12,500 times. What happens next is that deputies report back. They feed in names of people who targets were associated with, mostly friends and family. Then those people become targets, and the system expands.
How is the system working? Taking Pasco County with the seven nearest counties of equivalent size, Pasco is the only one where violent crime has increased. Still, Nocco has big plans. In the last year, he’s announced that the sheriff’s office is also going to start adding people who had been committed to psychiatric hospitals to their data set of targets. Because what anyone suffering from mental illness needs, is repeated, unexpected visits from armed deputies.
This is a Creative Commons article. The original version of this article appeared here.