IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Predictive policing strategies for children face pushback

“They basically built this system as a justification to chase the bad kids out of town," said one expert.
Image: Robert Jones
Robert Jones stands in front of his former home in Pasco County. Jones says constant harassment by the Pasco County Sheriff's Office resulted in his leaving the home and moving out of the county.Bob Croslin / for NBC News

Five months after Robert Jones, a 44-year-old aerospace process auditor, moved to what he described as the “really nice” neighborhood of Gulf Harbors in Pasco County, Florida, with his wife and four kids, “seven or eight” police cars showed up at his door.

Officers said they had heard about his then-16-year-old son Bobby’s school delinquency from colleagues in Pinellas County, where the family previously lived, and wanted to make sure he understood that the Pasco Sheriff’s Office did things a little differently, Jones recalled.

Bobby had been expelled from his last school after he was caught smoking pot and then got into a fight with another student. But both he and his dad had hoped the move to Pasco County would provide a fresh start.

“Truthfully, I thought it was one of these ‘scared straight’ moments,” said Jones, referring to the sheriff’s office's intimidating welcome to the neighborhood.

Officers said they wanted to come in and talk to his kids, and Jones said he let them. Within seconds they had their flashlights on and were, Jones said, “running rampant” without a search warrant.

The police report stated that Jones consented to a search. But he disputes this.

They scoured the house and found empty zip-close bags in his son’s room that later tested positive for traces of marijuana. Bobby was arrested and spent three weeks in juvenile detention before his trial, where the judge dismissed the charges due to the lack of measurable marijuana. He had been at his new school for just over a week.

Image: Robert Jones looks over documents relating to his son's arrests.
Robert Jones looks over documents relating to his son's arrests.Bob Croslin / for NBC News

What Jones didn’t realize at the time was that his son had been identified as a target by the Pasco Sheriff’s Office's “intelligence-led” policing program. Police had gathered records of Bobby’s previous interactions with law enforcement and were using his history to predict that he would be a troublemaker in Pasco County.

After Bobby was released, a monthslong ordeal followed, which Jones described as a “horror story” of police showing up at the family home, sometimes multiple times a day or in the middle of the night, to inquire about Bobby or ask to enter the home. Any time there was a crime in the neighborhood, such as a burglary, Bobby was a suspect. On some occasions, described in a lawsuit filed in March by Jones and others targeted bythe Pasco Sheriff’s Office, as many as 18 officers would show up at the home, “banging on windows and yelling at his young daughters while they were hiding under the bed.”

Jones, who had studied to be a paralegal, said he tried to stand his ground and refused to allow officers to conduct any more warrantless searches of his property. But police interpreted this behavior, the lawsuit states, as uncooperative and he was repeatedly cited — and eventually arrested — for property code violations such as having overly long grass, missing numbers on his mailbox and a Jet Ski trailer on the property.

From October 2015 through April 2016, Jones, who had no previous criminal history, was arrested five times. None of the arrests resulted in a conviction. His home was ransacked, laptops and phones seized, and he ultimately fled their home in the middle of the night to avoid further harassment by police, the lawsuit alleges.

“My family will never be made whole from this atrocity,” he said. “Where does anyone in my family get their presumption of innocence back?”

Image: Robert Jones' former home in Pasco County.
Robert Jones' former home in Pasco County.Bob Croslin / for NBC News

The sheriff’s office disputed the idea that its intelligence-led policing was “predictive policing” in the sense characterized by the science fiction movie "Minority Report," where people are arrested by a police department’s "pre-crime" division before they have the chance to carry out illegal deeds.

It said the Pasco Sheriff’s Office used historical data to “work with those who have shown a consistent pattern of offending to attempt to break the cycle of recidivism” but said Bobby was not added to its “prolific offender program,” which results in random visits from deputies, until 2017 — long after the period of harassment alleged by Jones.

A spokesman said Bobby had interacted with the sheriff’s office three times before officers showed up at the family home in September 2015. The spokesman said officers went to the house to discuss “involvement in criminal activity in the area” and searched his room to look for a stolen GPS device, which is how they found the empty baggies.

In a lengthy statement released by the agency in response to reporting on the program, a spokesman said the individuals accusing the sheriff’s office of harassment all had “lengthy criminal histories, often with a multitude of arrests and victims.”

Predictive analytics

Jones' family and civil liberties experts believe his case is emblematic of a broader effort by law enforcement agencies across the United States to predict criminality based on a wide range of data points that are crunched together and used to assign a risk score to individuals or places. While some law enforcement agencies say it can be a useful approach to efficient resource allocation and early intervention, critics say these programs can enter into the alarming realm of "pre-crime," where the presumption of innocence is lost, and that they encode existing racial and social biases.

Pasco County’s approach to “intelligence-led” policing, developed over a decade, has drawn particular concern from civil liberties experts because of a data-sharing arrangement with the local school district, which was first reported by Tampa Bay Times. That partnership gave the police access to data relating to students’ grades, attendance and behavior as well as any history of abuse or other “adverse childhood experiences.”

School records were used to allocate students one of four labels: on track, at risk, off track or critical. Getting a D grade or having a parent or sibling go to prison could be enough to put a child in the “at risk” category, according to Pasco’s own 83-page “Intelligence-Led Policing Manual,” first obtained by the Tampa Bay Times.

The manual, last updated in January 2018, states that the data-sharing was designed to identify “at-risk youth who are destined to a life of crime” and intervene to “set them on the right path.”

The sheriff’s office took the list of 20,000 students determined to be at risk, according to school data, and cross-referenced it with its own records of law enforcement interactions to come up with a smaller list of a few hundred students to be monitored closely and offered “positive mentorship and support” by school resource officers — sheriff’s office deputies contracted to work at the school. The agency does not notify parents of children added to the list but said parents can file a public records request to find out.

Bobby and his dad say they were never offered any kind of diversion program or support at school or home, only harassment and punishment. The sheriff’s office said the program to identify at-risk students was entirely separate from the "prolific offender" program but that Bobby and other adolescent offenders were given a “resource card” featuring details about “opportunities in our community” relating to mental health and substance abuse.

Criminal justice advocates say programs like these targeting adolescents, and the broader trend to increase surveillance in schools under the guise of school safety, fuel the so-called school-to-prison pipeline. This is where instead of letting children and teenagers make and learn from their mistakes, they are marked as criminals at an early age — even if they are only interacting with school resource officers. Once they are in the criminal justice system, it’s almost impossible to escape.

“This idea that you can predict criminality is very worrisome and extremely troubling. You cannot,” said Jason Nance, professor of law at the University of Florida Levin College of Law. “These are real kids with real lives. If you have extra scrutiny on a child and that child does something minor or untoward, you may set that student on a pathway in which that student will become more involved in the criminal justice system later on.”

After the Tampa Bay Times disclosed the existence of the program in late 2020, the program received widespread criticism from civil liberties and legal experts.

“It is really, as someone who has studied this, it is jaw-droppingly bad in all aspects,” said Andrew Ferguson, a law professor at American University. “They basically built this system as a justification to chase the bad kids out of town, to monitor them in over-aggressive ways with no intention to help them but to make their lives so miserable that they would leave.”

The intelligence-led policing program, which is the subject of the lawsuit in which Jones and three other parents are named as plaintiffs, alleges that the sheriff’s office repeatedly violated property rights with its unwarranted, suspicionless visits to targets’ homes.

“Having a policy of harassment and intimidation and constitutional violations of a county’s own residents is not a legitimate way to do police work,” said Ari Bargil, an attorney at the Institute for Justice, the legal nonprofit bringing the case.

Federal notice

Pasco’s program has also attracted the attention of the U.S. Department of Education, which in April opened an investigation into the data-sharing arrangement between the school district and the sheriff’s office.

The Department of Education investigation focuses on whether the data-sharing between the school district and law enforcement violates the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, a federal law that governs access to children’s education records. Under FERPA, a school is not allowed to disclose personally identifiable information from a student’s education records without consent, although there are some exceptions for emergency situations.

“The unlawful sharing of information between school districts and law enforcement is not unusual,” said Harold Jordan, senior policy advocate at the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania. “What makes Pasco County an outlier is the notion that they scan large groups of kids’ records. They aren’t even claiming the kids have made any threats. These aren’t situations where there is any legitimate law enforcement investigation happening, just that the school has identified some kids as disruptive.”

Alberto Betancourt, a Department of Education spokesman, said the agency is not able to provide any further details about the investigation until it has concluded — a process that experts say could take years.

If Pasco County Schools is found to be in violation of FERPA, it could lose its federal funding. However, privacy expert Linnette Attai, author of a book about FERPA compliance, said this has never happened before and is “an extremely unlikely outcome.”

In early May, weeks after the Department of Education launched its investigation, the Pasco Sheriff’s Office and the school board revised their data-sharing agreement so that police officers contracted as school resource officers would no longer have access to student grades or discipline histories, nor the school district’s early warning system, which categorizes students as on track, off track or at risk.

In a statement, Sheriff Chris Nocco said the agency was “voluntarily making this update” to “ease any anxiety that parents may have as a result of misinformation perpetuated by media reports.”

Some civil liberties and criminal justice organizations say this doesn’t go far enough, noting that the new wording still allows "criminal intelligence analysts" from the sheriff’s office to access school data.

A group of 30 advocacy groups called the PASCO Coalition (People Against Surveillance of Children and Overpolicing​), which includes the Southern Poverty Law Center, Electronic Frontier Foundation and Color of Change, issued a statement saying it was “extremely disappointed” by the announced revisions to the data-sharing agreement because they did not go far enough. It called for the immediate termination of “the student data-sharing arrangement for any collaboration, involvement, or participation in school-based predictive policing” operated by the sheriff’s office.

National problem

School districts and law enforcement officials nationwide are struggling with similar problems. In 2015, in St. Paul, Minnesota, the Ramsey County Attorney's Office, the St. Paul school board, the Ramsey County Sheriff's Office and the city of St. Paul, among others, started collaborating and trying to come up with a new way to help troubled youth and families.

Like the program in Pasco County, this one also was designed to help children avoid any interactions with the juvenile justice system by sharing data across agencies.

In a slide deck from April 2018, the agencies stated that they wanted to “transform the way our public systems work together by developing a new triage referral system that uses data-driven decision-making” and “prevent interaction with the juvenile justice system” by creating a “statewide system” to share information across agencies.

This plan was quickly met with resistance from local advocacy groups, which banded together to form the Coalition to Stop the Cradle to Prison Algorithm. Local activists argued that such data could be used to racially profile and make inaccurate predictions about students of color, which could have led to outcomes that local authorities were trying to avoid.

Marika Pfefferkorn, co-founder of the coalition, pointed to the fact that the Minnesota Department of Human Rights found in March 2018 that students of color comprise two-thirds of all school suspensions across the state, despite the fact that such students constitute only 31 percent of the student population.

So, she argued, if a predictive model is using implicitly biased data like school suspensions, it is unlikely to be a useful way to determine future criminality.

”What they were proposing to use as indicators would not actually be a sound understanding of who was in need,” she said.

The program was halted in less than a year.

Just a few years before St. Paul began to think about how to integrate data-sharing as a way to predict possible criminal behavior, Rochester, Minnesota, explored a related idea.

Rochester was one of several cities — including Memphis, Tennessee, and Richmond, Virginia — to buy an “advanced analytics software” tool called InfoSphere Identity Insight that would enable local police to forecast crime “hot spots.”

In the Minnesota city, which is about 100 miles southeast of the Twin Cities, the goal was to not only target adult criminals but also approximately 30 juveniles, combining data about criminal history and their real-world social network.

But this program didn’t have great results, according to Capt. John Sherwin, a 20-year veteran of the Rochester Police Department. The reality was that sometimes “predictions” produced by the IBM system were things that veteran officers had already figured out. For example, Sherwin said, juveniles who have a probation violation are slightly more likely to commit a violent felony offense as an adult than the general population.

“The idea was novel: We are going to disrupt these trends that have plagued juveniles going to prison,” he said. “The results were really underwhelming.”

In 2019, after being sued by the ACLU, California’s Riverside County stopped using a voluntary probation program that designated young people as at risk of criminality for noncriminal behavior. Signals that a child was at risk included truancy, talking back to school officials or poor academic performance. Adolescents who were signed up to the program faced unannounced home visits, restrictions on who they could speak to and curfews.

“Young people are supposed to be allowed to do stupid things. That’s how they learn,” said Corey Jackson, CEO of student mentoring program Sigma Beta Xi, which partnered with the ACLU in the lawsuit. “But with this program, if they made a mistake, they could be punished for the rest of their life.”

The Pasco Sheriff’s Office’s manual described this type of intelligence-led policing as a way for law enforcement to operate more efficiently and focus resources on the “most serious and prolific offenders.”

Intelligence-led policing "emphasizes analysis and intelligence as pivotal to an objective, decision-making framework that prioritizes crime hot spots, repeat victims, prolific offenders, and criminal groups. It facilitates crime and harm reduction, disruption, and prevention through strategic and tactical management, deployment and enforcement,” the manual states.

Lasting impact

For Robert Jones, the damage is already done.

“I have friends who are police officers and have seen plenty of good police. But my kids will never see them like that,” said Jones. “They don’t think they are out to help at all, but to hurt, and that’s really scary.”

Image: Robert Jones
Robert Jones.Bob Croslin / for NBC News

His son Bobby, now 21, who is currently in the Pinellas County jail awaiting trial for an assault charge, is struggling to deal with the fallout.

"I was still a child," he said. "Rather than targeting me, they should have offered some kind of redirection or supervision. It would have helped my mental state."

CORRECTION (June 7, 2021 12:02a.m.ET): A previous version of this article misidentified Robert Jones' wife. They are married; she is not his girlfriend.