I recently re-watched the Spielberg-Tom Cruise big screen adaptation of Minority Report. It still holds up as a great sci-fi film about the dangers of the surveillance state, but it also loses something in the way it strays from the source material. I'm hardly an adaptation purist, but Philip K Dick's original "Minority Report" short story was deeply, deeply chilling in a way that a Tom Cruise movie was never going to be — because instead of being a wrongly-accused hero who wants to restore freedom, the Tom Cruise character says, "Well actually this autism-abuse algorithm system we've devised is working pretty well, and it would make things even worse if I proved it wrong."
He then makes the choice to fulfill the murder he's been algorithmically prophecized to fulfill, thus ensuring that the Minority Report system remains flawless and accurate and good. He literally kills someone to protect the surveillance state apparatus.
I thought of this original ending when I started reading about this Tampa Bay Times investigation into the Pasco County Sheriff Department's terrifying predictive policing dragnet. The comparison popped in my mind before I even reached this passage:
Nocco took over the Pasco Sheriff's Office in 2011 when his predecessor retired early and then-Gov. Rick Scott appointed him to finish the term.
Nocco was 35 and a newly promoted major who had joined the Sheriff's Office two years earlier. He had deep ties to Republican politics but far less experience in law enforcement than the outgoing sheriff.
He quickly rolled out a plan to remake the department that sounded like a pitch for a Hollywood blockbuster: Moneyball meets Minority Report.
The intent was to reduce property crime. The agency, which has 650 sworn law enforcement officers and covers a county of roughly 500,000 residents, would use data to predict where future crimes were likely to take place and who was likely to commit them, Nocco told reporters. Then deputies would find those people and "take them out" — thwarting criminal activity before it happened.
"Instead of being reactive," he said, "we are going to be proactive."
He later said the approach was not unlike the way the federal government goes after terrorists.
Oh okay cool, so Minority Report was literally an inspiration for this guy's program. He apparently watched that movie and thought, "Actually this is good, and if Tom Cruise was a real hero, he would murdered someone in order to protect the accuracy of the system and keep the world safe."
The Tampa Bay Times article offers a long and comprehensive investigation into a program that's exactly as Draconian as you might exist. I suggest you read the whole thing — but here are a few passages that stood out to me:
First the Sheriff's Office generates lists of people it considers likely to break the law, based on arrest histories, unspecified intelligence and arbitrary decisions by police analysts.
Then it sends deputies to find and interrogate anyone whose name appears, often without probable cause, a search warrant or evidence of a specific crime.
They swarm homes in the middle of the night, waking families and embarrassing people in front of their neighbors. They write tickets for missing mailbox numbers and overgrown grass, saddling residents with court dates and fines. They come again and again, making arrests for any reason they can.
One former deputy described the directive like this: "Make their lives miserable until they move or sue."
In just five years, Nocco's signature program has ensnared almost 1,000 people.
As they make checks, deputies feed information back into the system, not just on the people they target, but on family members, friends and anyone else in the target's orbit.
In the past two years alone, two of the nation's largest law enforcement agencies have scrapped similar programs following public outcries and reports documenting serious flaws.
In Pasco, however, the initiative has expanded. Last summer, the Sheriff's Office announced plans to begin keeping tabs on people who have been repeatedly committed to psychiatric hospitals.
Aside from the inherently biased data collection they're running here, they're also openly criminalizing mental health problems. Most people killed by police already have a mental disorder, but this is even more cruel.
Here's a little bit more about how their algorithms work:
Potential prolific offenders are first identified using an algorithm the department invented that gives people scores based on their criminal records. People get points each time they're arrested, even when the charges are dropped. They get points for merely being a suspect.
The manual says people's scores are "enhanced" — it does not say by how much — if they miss court dates, violate their probation or appear in five or more police reports, even if they were listed as a witness or the victim.
If the targets, their family members or associates wouldn't speak to deputies or answer questions, STAR team deputies were told to look for code enforcement violations like faded mailbox numbers, a forgotten bag of trash or overgrown grass, Rodgers said.
The father of one Sheriff's Office target was fined over the numbers posted on his house. The numbers were there, the document notes in the top-right, but a nearby light made them hard to see. The form indicates the father had to attend a mandatory court hearing. Pasco Sheriff's Office
"We would literally go out there and take a tape measure and measure the grass if somebody didn't want to cooperate with us," he said.
Rodgers said people sometimes would fail to pay the fine, which would result in a warrant being issued for their arrest.
"We'd get them one way or another," he said.
See how easy it is to manufacture criminals and villains? You don't even need to be convicted of a crime — just pull over a car a few times for a few "random" checks based on prejudiced profiling and bam, that computer will repeat back to you with calculated confidence that that driver is indeed a dangerous villain who must be stopped at all costs!
In response to this huge expose, the Pasco County Sheriff's Office released a statement, pointing out that their Minority Report knockoff has, indeed, been successful in reducing property crime, and is therefore good. They fail to notice that property crimes in their county dropped … at the exact same rate as they did in the seven-largest nearby police jurisdictions. Or that violent crime increased. (We perhaps shouldn't be so surprised that these police would place such importance on the protection of property above all. That is, after all, the fundamental purpose of most police since their founding: taxpayer-funded private property protection for landowners).
Check out the whole horrifying story at the link.
Pasco's sheriff created a futuristic program to stop crime before it happens.
It monitors and harasses families across the county. [Kathleen McGrory and Neil Bedi / Tampa Bay Times]