Bellingham police to get predictive policing despite concerns

Bellingham Police Chief Cliff Cook and Deputy Chief Flo Simon talk to civic leaders about purchasing predictive policing software in a screengrab of the Bellingham City Council meeting on Monday, Aug. 10.
Bellingham Police Chief Cliff Cook and Deputy Chief Flo Simon talk to civic leaders about purchasing predictive policing software in a screengrab of the Bellingham City Council meeting on Monday, Aug. 10. Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

The city’s police department will accept a grant to buy predictive policing software despite pleas from citizens who said the program could contribute to racial profiling.

About 20 people gathered outside City Hall before Monday evening’s City Council meeting, Aug. 10, holding signs that read “Predictive Policing (does not equal) Community Policing,” “Black Lives Matter” and “End Racist Systems.”

Among those gathered were members from local justice groups the Bellingham Racial Justice Coalition and Community to Community Development who shared stories of local people who felt they had been unfairly targeted by police in Whatcom County.

Junga Subedar, a member of the Racial Justice Coalition steering committee, said the group’s main concern with the new program was that “bad data” from police reports could go into the system, producing bad results and further legitimizing racial profiling.

Before a public hearing about the plan to buy software, made by Bair Analytics, Bellingham Police Chief Cliff Cook took a moment to address those concerns, as he felt they were unfounded.

“I think there’s been some misinformation in regards to what this software will do for us,” he said.

He clarified that there are basically four categories of predictive policing: predicting crimes, predicting potential offenders, predicting perpetrators’ identities, and predicting victims of crime.

“The software we’re considering does not do any of the last three,” Cook said. “It is strictly about taking information that is in our current (system), based upon reported crime, reported by the community, and from that information trying to forecast where we are likely to see those crimes repeat themselves.”

The software, which will be purchased with a $21,213 grant from the federal Bureau of Justice Assistance, plots the types of crimes that take place in the city on a map, along with the date and time they took place, and can create heat maps that show areas that are particularly hard-hit by certain types of crime. The grant pays for the first three years of the service. Afterward, the annual cost would be close to $5,600.

The department selected the program partly because it offers free public access to basic information about the crimes at raidsonline.com. People can sign up for alerts and see when and where crimes take place in their neighborhood.

So why does the department need the software?

“Ordinarily and currently our analyst has to do this by hand,” Cook said. “To look at specific crimes, such as the burglary of a residence, over a five-year period is a huge amount of data. It takes days to analyze.”

The software will help refine that information in minutes.

“It is not my desire, nor is it my intent, for this software to be based on personal information about individuals,” Cook said. “My belief is it can be used productively, fairly, and constitutionally. That is my intent, and that is my assurance to you and the members of this community.”

Despite those assurances, people spoke out against the program during the public hearing.

Their concerns varied. Some said they worried about the accuracy of the data and its proprietary algorithm. Others asked the City Council to take a stance on the software, as they had done before.

Last year, when the police department tried to use the same type of grant to purchase Intrado Beware software, which would have assigned a threat indicator to specific addresses and could have pulled publicly available information from social media, people spoke out against the software and the council took a vote asking the department to use the grant money to buy something else.

Although the grant did not need council approval, Cook opted to listen to the council’s guidance and instead purchased body armor.

Before Monday’s public hearing, council member Terry Bornemann told those present that the hearing was solely for the police department to take input, and that the council would not take a vote on the issue.

Community activist Rosalinda Guillen said she felt the software would only “increase the systemic racism that’s already present in Bellingham,” and called on the council to take a vote anyway.

“I’m not going to take it for granted that you will purchase this, because we are opposed to this,” Guillen said. “And if the City Council doesn’t take a position just because you are given a break to not have to decide on this, then shame on you, because we are the ones that are going to have to pay for whatever happens with this software.”

Kim Harris, volunteer spokesperson for the Racial Justice Coalition, said she worried that historically and presently, data presented by law enforcement implies people of color commit more crimes. Harris said it would have been better for the department to have held community meetings letting people know how the software works before the hearing.

Afterward, Bornemann said he heard the comments and understood there were real concerns about profiling.

“I fully understand it as a parent of children of color,” Bornemann said. “I have seen that type of thing happen. ... But I do really think, and I know our police force, we’ve got a good police force.”

Cook responded to the concerns in more detail in an interview Tuesday, Aug. 11.

“There is an unfortunate propensity for people to believe that police officers are all the same,” Cook said. “Sometimes they lose sight of the fact that the individuals that comprise police departments come from a variety of backgrounds, both racial and ethnically, and have similar life experiences to those minority members of the community who are concerned about how police interact with people of color.”

Cook said he was worried to hear that some of the possible concerns raised about his department were based on stories people had read about other police departments around the country.

“We willingly put out information about our arrests and citation rates to community members ... to demonstrate we don’t believe that we’re policing in the same way as other departments are, showing that it’s not profiling of individuals, demonstrating that we are not focused on specific areas of the city based on the racial makeup or socioeconomic makeup of that area,” Cook said..

“Our intent is to identify those areas where crime is most likely to occur and place officers in those parts of the city as often as we can so we can prevent those crimes from ever happening, so residents are not victimized,” he continued.

Cook said he wants those citizens who felt they had been victims of profiling or unfair policing to report it.

“If you feel like you’ve been profiled or the target of unethical policing, I need to know that,” he said. “My experience has been in many of those types of cases, in other agencies I’ve worked in, generally it’s a misunderstanding of what the initial stop was about.”

Those reports can be made to the department in person, by phone, or at the city website, cob.org. Community members who feel uncomfortable making a complaint to the department can go to the mayor’s office, Cook said, or, if they feel it’s warranted, can call the local office of the FBI.

Reach Samantha Wohlfeil at 360-715-2274 or samantha.wohlfeil@bellinghamherald.com. Follow her on Twitter at @BhamPolitics.