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Tech Company: Existing Products Can Help Address Police Bias

Protesters and civil rights advocates have asked for a rethinking of policing. Some proposed changes include better tracking of "problem officers." Here's a look at one company that does just that.

by / August 21, 2020
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After a Minneapolis police officer killed George Floyd by pressing a knee onto his neck for about eight minutes, protesters nationwide called loudly and clearly for more than just condemnation or incremental change — they asked for a broad, deep rethinking of the entire spectrum of policing in America.

Whether that happens remains to be seen. But in the meantime, some technology companies are pointing to products that existed long before May 25, 2020, which they believe could help reduce police violence against Black people and other racial minorities by giving “early warnings” to police leadership.

LEFTA Systems is one such company. Founded in 2006 by a former supervisor in the Jacksonville, Fla., police department, it works with about 400 law enforcement agencies of all size in more than 40 states. They include his former department as well as the police departments of Seattle, Houston, San Francisco and Albuquerque, N.M.

Its products essentially boil down to documentation and analysis systems that take data — which many departments keep on paper — and organize it so that it can tell supervisors about officers whose actions point to trouble.

“The idea would be that an agency would be able to say, you know what, if one of my officers is maybe getting a certain number of complaints within 60 days, in addition to that they’re also getting a couple use-of-force incidents, they’re maybe crashing their car, they’re calling in sick a lot, it would be great for a supervisor to get an email as soon as that happens so then they can look into it deeper, maybe counsel the employee, maybe send them to a digital training that might be required,” said Bryan Selzer, founder and CEO of the company.

The concept focuses on “problem officers,” when many argue that government should be looking for ways to change the entire system of law enforcement — what they’re responsible for, the legal protections they have, the things they’re allowed to do and more. At the same time, many have suggested that better data collection and training should be part of a larger package of significant reforms.

Crucially, the systems rely on police agencies — the very people protesters are criticizing — to respond to that information in a meaningful way.

Recently companies that work with police have started looking for ways to bring in the voices of the policed, including oversight boards that examine products during the design stage and hiring third parties to audit their algorithms for bias. Selzer said LEFTA hasn’t worked with any such community groups, but would be happy to have a discussion if one reached out.

Aside from use of force reports and complaints, the company also helps departments track incidents such as vehicle crashes, training activities and pursuits. It also has an application meant to identify officers that are profiling citizens based on demographic factors like race and gender. Selzer said that particular tool is unique in that it seeks to compare the types of people an officer is making contact with to the demographics of the place the officer operates in.

“If my officer pulls over 60% of his stops, and they happen to be African American, but he’s riding in an area that’s 80% African American, he’s constantly being flagged, (but) those are the only people who live in the area, right?” he said. “So there needs to be a correlation, otherwise what happens is if you have a bad flagging system, after a while the supervisor’s just going to ignore it, because that guy’s getting flagged every day.”

Selzer said an early warning system should have flagged Derek Chauvin, the Minneapolis officer who killed Floyd. According to the Minneapolis Star Tribune, the U.S. Department of Justice recommended that the city’s police department invest in an early warning system in 2014, but it never put one in place. Chauvin was involved in several shootings and was the subject of 15 complaints while employed at the department.

In the aftermath of his actions, the department is working with the company Benchmark Analytics to implement such a system.

Selzer emphasized that he puts tools into the hands of police departments, and it’s up to them how to use them. The company can create either internal systems or systems that generate information for the public as well.

“It really is up, always, to the command of an agency how transparent they want to be, and then we provide that solution for them,” he said.

He also outlined a way that his software can help push departments to change. One of the company’s clients is a pooled risk fund in Florida that insures police departments. Since insurance premiums are based on risk, insurers could look to this kind of documentation software to gauge the likelihood of officers in different departments becoming the subject of lawsuits. The premiums, then, could become a financial incentive for departments to change how they hire officers, the kind of training they put them through and how they respond to warning signs.

Regardless, tracking such information digitally should be an improvement over paper-based processes, he said.

“If you have everything on paper, it’s almost impossible to really have that because you simply don’t have time to sit down with each employee that works for you and see if there’s an issue, versus a software program can identify those issues and simply flag an officer,” Selzer said.

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Ben Miller Associate Editor of GT Data and Business

Ben Miller is the associate editor of data and business for Government Technology. His reporting experience includes breaking news, business, community features and technical subjects. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in journalism from the Reynolds School of Journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno, and lives in Sacramento, Calif.


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