The Strategic Subjects List

Detail of a satirical magazine cover for All Cops Are Beautiful, created by Krzysztof Nowak.
Detail of a satirical magazine cover created by Krzysztof Nowak.

United States policing is full of newspeak, the euphemistic language that governments use to reframe their control of citizens. Take “officer-involved shooting”, a much-maligned term that police departments and then news organizations use to flatten legitimate self-defense and extrajudicial executions into the same type of incident.

And now, in the age of algorithms, we have Chicago’s “Strategic Subjects List”:

Spearheaded by the Chicago Police Department in collaboration with the Illinois Institute of Technology, the pilot project uses an algorithm to rank and identify people most likely to be perpetrators or victims of gun violence based on data points like prior narcotics arrests, gang affiliation and age at the time of last arrest. An experiment in what is known as “predictive policing,” the algorithm initially identified 426 people whom police say they’ve targeted with preventative social services. […]
A recently published study by the RAND Corporation, a think tank that focuses on defense, found that using the list didn’t help the Chicago Police Department keep its subjects away from violent crime. Neither were they more likely to receive social services. The only noticeable difference it made was that people on the list ended up arrested more often.

WOW, WHAT A WEIRD COINCIDENCE! The “strategic subjects” on the list were subjected, strategically, to increased police attention, and I’m sure they were all thrilled by the Chicago Police Department’s interest in their welfare.

Less than fifty years ago, the Chicago Police Department literally tortured black men in order to coerce “confessions”. None of that is euphemism. A cattle prod to the genitals — but maybe it ought to be called “officer-involved agony”?

I get so worked up about language because language itself can function as a predictive model. The words people use shape how they think, and thoughts have some kind of impact on actions. Naturally, the CPD officers who carried out the torture called their victims the N-word.

I wonder what proportion of the Strategic Subjects List is black? Given “data points like prior narcotics arrests [and] gang affiliation”, an algorithm can spit out the legacy of 245 years of legal slavery more efficiently than a human. But torture in Chicago is still handcrafted by red-blooded American men. Trump would be proud.

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