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Worcester, Mass., Balks at Crime Forecasting Technology

Officials balked at a one-year subscription to ShotSpotter Connect, an automated technology that would use police data-driven crime forecasting to inform decisions about where to place officers to try to deter crime.

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(TNS) — After hearing a raft of concerns from the public about a planned expansion of the Police Department's ShotSpotter program, the City Council voted Tuesday to split the item to give new technology included with the upgrade a more public airing.

Councilors overwhelmingly supported an expansion of existing ShotSpotter technology, which detects gunshots and leads police to their source. The program has been in use across six square miles of the city for the past seven years.

But along with many residents who called into the virtual meeting, several councilors balked at the proposed deal with ShotSpotter that includes expansion of the existing system's range and a one-year subscription to ShotSpotter Connect, an automated technology that would use police "data-driven crime forecasting" to inform decisions about where to place officers to try to deter crime.

Ultimately, the council voted to approve the funding for the expansion of the existing ShotSpotter technology, but sent the ShotSpotter Connect component to subcommittee. District 4 Councilor  Sarai Rivera  pushed for public discussion of the program to go beyond a subcommittee and to community groups.

Councilors Tuesday were asked to approve a $150,000 transfer to pay for a 2.6 square-mile expansion of the program into the Lincoln Street/Green Hill ParkwayBelmont Hill  neighborhoods that included the ShotSpotter Connect technology.

Deputy Police Chief  Paul B. Saucier  told the council Tuesday that when the department approached ShotSpotter about expanding the city's coverage area, the company offered the city a free square mile - worth about $80,000 - if the department agreed to a one-year subscription to ShotSpotter Connect.

Saucier and police Chief  Steven Sargent  explained Tuesday that the new technology would create a citywide crime forecasting system that builds upon work the department already does and adds a level of automation.

Saucier said the department already heavily relies on crime statistics to decide where to deploy resources. The new system automates the process, and updates crime forecasts for each shift over a 24-hour period.

He said the system would create a "hotspot map" for each shift, and would send officers on "directed patrols" to those areas.

Saucier said if the city uses the new ShotSpotter Connect technology, it would help officers do their jobs more effectively. He said officers would have two to three hotspot areas they would have to visit a few times per shift. He said the approach could be varied - an officer could simply go to the area and stay there while writing reports, or they could park and walk around the neighborhood. Their presence would act as a deterrent, Saucier said.

Residents who called into the meeting said they were concerned the technology would reinforce racial biases in policing that has been documented nationwide, and said studies on the use of the technology have been inconclusive.

Rush Frazier  said predictive policing technology is still extremely new, and fails to address the core driver of crimes - unaddressed needs in communities. Safety can be increased by directly investing in the community, she said.

Kevin Ksen  said it was frustrating to see Sargent, who has said he remains committed to the community policing model, signal a shift away from it with this new technology. He said it also appears the budget process and public deliberation was sidestepped.

Matthew Whitlock  said the program could lead to disproportionate over-policing of communities, and  Jordan Berg-Powers  said it was unclear to him how the technology does anything the department isn't supposed to already be doing - looking at statistics to determine where to deploy resources. Berg-Powers said he would like to see police interact more with people in the neighborhoods they patrol.

Saucier said the "artificial intelligence" the technology uses is not the type that relies on personal information or criminal histories of individuals - it would only forecast where a crime was likely to occur, based on the department's own data.

City Manager  Edward M. Augustus Jr . said the new technology would make the process much quicker, and would allow police to be more precise about how they respond to an uptick in crime in certain areas.

Augustus said he viewed the technology as a common-sense way to do a better job at community policing.

"When we say neighbors want foot beats, or patrols, because they're experiencing some level of crime - we're talking about having data that reinforces that," Augustus said.

Councilors said they had no issue with expanding the existing ShotSpotter range, and several councilors, including at-large Councilor  Matthew Wally , Mayor  Joseph M. Petty , at-large Councilor  Morris Bergman  and at-large Councilor  Kathleen M. Toomey  said they would support both the range expansion and the new technology.

Councilors said some neighborhoods have been asking for coverage for years, and more generally, many neighborhood groups and crime watches consistently say they would like to see more police presence, not less.

But District 3 Councilor  George Russell  said he just didn't know enough about the new program to vote on it, and suggested it be sent to committee.

District 1 Councilor  Sean Rose  said he was also in favor of more public discussion before the department moves forward with the new technology. He said there should be a process to publicly reassure them that "there's no funny business here."

He said it would be prudent for the possible embrace of a new technology to be more of a public conversation.

District 4 Councilor  Sarai Rivera  said she would like to see that public conversation expand beyond City Hall. She said groups like Black Families Together and Worcester Interfaith have been meeting on issues involving interaction between police and communities.

District 2 Councilor  Candy Mero-Carlson  said she has been advocating for more ShotSpotter coverage in the Lincoln Street and Belmont Street areas. She said residents have told her they are looking for safe neighborhoods in which to raise their children. She said residents in some areas are scared to death. She said the new forecasting technology is just looking to deploy officers to areas where things are happening. She said there was no way she would sign on to something that was racially biased.

Wally said he wanted to make sure the council gets updates on the progress of the program. As a subscription-based program, at-large Councilor  Donna Colorio  said concerns about the technology being aimed at individuals were addressed, and said a call for more police, not less, is a common theme at neighborhood meetings she goes to.

At-Large Councilor  Gary Rosen  agreed with Russell that there wasn't enough information on the new technology for the council to make a decision Tuesday.

At-large Councilor Khrystian King said the item before the council Tuesday had no public process - no subcommittee hearing, no community meetings, no further vetting. He said when the city is considering using automated predictions to inform policing, it needs to make sure all stakeholders understand how it works. He said the vendor should be subject to oversight. He said he has concerns about how effective the new technology is, and said he has heard concerns about removing a certain level of the "human element" of policing that the city is at the same time trying to improve through training, diversifying the force, and other initiatives.

Rivera and King abstained from voting on the funding component on the existing ShotSpotter expansion; they said they were not clear on how the $150,000 original price for the package would be impacted, now that the council will separately consider the ShotSpotter Connect technology.

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