Visual profiling in criminal justice

By Erica Quinones
Elm Staff Writer
Students analyzed the evolution of predictive policing on Monday Feb. 4.
The Department of Communication and Media Studies hosted Dr. Allison Page as part of their CMS Speaker Series. Page is an assistant professor of communication and theatre arts at Old Dominion University. Her work has been published in several journals and she is currently working on a book preliminarily titled “The Affective Life of Slavery: Race, Media, and Governance.”
Page held a student-seminar titled “Governing through Algorithms: Predictive Policing in the Era of Black Lives Matter,” exploring how surveillance technologies and their effects on African-Americans have evolved.
Page began her seminar with two ideas, a quote and an argument by scholar Simone Browne.
The quote read, “In the U.S. race has always been dependent on the visual.” Browne’s argument labeled blackness itself as a site through which surveillance is enacted. With these ideas, she prepared the group to discuss the role visual mediums have in creating criminal stereotypes.
Page placed the origin of this trend in the Antebellum period with newspaper ads requesting the capture of or information on escaped enslaved people. Here, descriptions were used to identify the escapees, thus labeling them criminals. The use of visuals to identify criminals continued with the development of the mugshot and security cameras. In these cases, the visual representation of the person becomes a condemnation of their guilt. They are labeled criminal by having their images presented as such.
How and who we decide to represent in these images then helps how society determines, as Page said, “what constitutes a crime.”
While mugshots and surveillance video are staples of the American criminal system, they are becoming archaic. Today, developing surveillance programs use algorithms to predict criminal occurances. This form of policing, known as predictive policing, is becoming increasingly common.
This form of policing is argued to be racially unbiased; however, the data collected is racially coded. One predictive policing software, PredPol, predicts high-crime areas and times. While predicting high-crime areas seems relatively unbiased, Page said that these programs naturalize crime and use “post-race language.” This language may include words like “neighborhood,” which are racially coded.
Racial profiling in policing becomes more prominent in tactics described by the 2017 German documentary, “Pre-Crime.” The documentary highlights technologies that could predict who is most likely to commit a crime. Due to the opaque nature of algorithms, it is possible to include post-racial variables like “neighborhood” in the data collected. This would lead to a racial bias being introduced and the condemnation of people located in these high-minority populated areas before a crime is committed.
While technology has made the profiling of black communities easier, it has also provided a platform for their sufferings. Page said we live in “a culture which is unable to see black suffering.” However, the creation of social media and video technology has made it easier to reveal injustices. Apps like Five-0, which rates police interactions, and videos depicting police brutality help reveal both the bias in the justice system and the people those injustices affect.
After her student seminar, Page held a public lecture titled “Meet, Help, Become a Slave…to Better Understand History: Race and Agency in Educational Videogames”  in Litrentra Lecture Hall at 4:30 p.m.

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