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Criminal Defense Attorney Peter Brill Questions Police Use of Threat Assessment Software

Feb 5, 2016

New York, NY (Law Firm Newswire) February 5, 2016 – Police departments are increasingly using computer software to instantly assess a suspect’s perceived “threat score.”

The Washington Post reported on the Fresno Police Department’s use of several cutting-edge technologies to fight crime. Among the most controversial is new software called Beware. As police respond to calls, Beware searches public data for the names of residents of the address in question. The program scours arrest reports, commercial databases and social media postings, then scores the individual or address on a color-coded threat scale: red, yellow or green.

Criminal defense attorney Peter Brill said that he found the Washington Post’s account of a recent domestic violence call a cause for concern. While officers responded to a 911 call about a man allegedly threatening his ex-girlfriend, Beware found that the man had a previous firearm conviction and appeared to be associated with a gang. The software gave the suspect its highest threat level designation: red. Police decided to bring in a negotiator, which they later said was the right call — after the suspect surrendered, a gun was found on the premises.

“It’s important that suspects not be judged in the absence of evidence, and these public records searches performed by the software are not evidence,” Brill said. “We must also be careful not to deem individuals guilty by association with criminals. When police use the data to exercise caution in potentially dangerous situations, that is clearly beneficial. But it seems all too easy to use it to respond to a suspect with unfounded suspicion or even an assumption of guilt.”

Brill was also troubled to learn that Beware’s exact method of calculating threat scores is a trade secret. Law enforcement personnel are provided with a listing of data points the software deems significant, but they cannot determine the relative importance placed on an arrest, a conviction or a questionable social media post.

Brill said that while police in New York, his local area, do not appear to be using Beware at this time, he expects they will in the future.

“Recent reports indicate the NYPD is surveilling social media to a large degree in order to fight various types of crime,” Brill said. “It’s likely only a matter of time until New Yorkers are subject to a proprietary computer program influencing how police treat suspects.”


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