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Vehicles sit at the light at the off-ramp of U.S. Highway 12 at Fruitvale Boulevard Thursday, July 15, 2021 in Yakima, Wash.

The Yakima City Council agreed to invest in 15 automatic license plate recognition cameras and hire two new crime analysts earlier this month, as the Yakima Police Department shifts toward a data-driven approach to eliminate violent crime and gang violence.

“Communication is the biggest issue,” Capt. Shawn Boyle said the July 6 City Council meeting. “(An analyst) is going to be the link to communicate from the detective division to the administration to the officers and we’ll see a lot better flow of information between all the departments in the organization.”

Ten of the cameras will be permanently placed at entry points to the city of Yakima and five will be used in high-crime areas. The exact locations will be determined by the analysts.

The initial cost of 15 cameras is $110,000, with a yearly subscription of $5,000. Hiring the additional analyst and supervisor will cost $269,958.

The YPD will use data analysis to provide direction for determining things like what time should officers’ shifts start, where policing district boundaries should go for police cars or how many cars should be staffed on different days of the week, said Chief Matt Murray.

“For over a year, we have been working with the U.S. Attorney’s office to use a strategy effective around the country for reducing gang violence,” Murray said. “It’s not just a police strategy, it’s a community strategy and we can’t do all the parts (alone).”

Murray and Yakima County Sheriff Robert Udell met with FBI staff a few months ago to establish a partnership to look into data analysis in policing. The FBI will help the YPD build an analyst task force and a gang task force that will work together.

“What we’ve found over time is that the same gang members are committing crimes in different communities up and down the Valley,” Murray said. “All the people in this task force will be federally sworn as task force officers so they will then have federal authority to enforce crime and investigate, regardless of city boundaries.”

Murray hopes to make the gang task force a countywide effort, but he said some of the data efforts will be harder to implement in smaller communities because of the cost.

“I don’t know how far they’ll be behind (with technology), but we will work with them and share the data and work together to work on this problem,” Murray said.

It’s not the first time YPD has used analysts or paired up with federal agencies to address crime. In 2015, the department hired an analyst to examine data for patterns to either solve crime or prevent it.

YPD officers also work on a joint task force with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. In 2019, YPD, the sheriff’s office and federal agencies worked together on “Operation Invictus Civitas” to target violent crime.

The YPD is encouraging a community strategy that is outlined in the book, “Don’t Shoot: One Man, A Street Fellowship, and the End of Violence in Inner-City America” by David M. Kennedy.

“Part of the philosophy in that strategy is to identify people most likely to commit acts of violence or be victims of violence,” Murray said. “The police then intercede and say to them, ‘Listen, if you don’t change your ways, then we’re going to be there at every turn.’”

The second part of the strategy is that the community works through nonprofits to target the exact same people on the YPD’s list and work with them.

“The community asks the question “what can we do to help you not do this anymore?’ It might be a job, school, moving, or anything else that could help the person make the decision to leave gang life,” Murray said.

Privacy

At the City Council meeting, Councilmember Brad Hill noted the issue of privacy with the license plate recognition cameras, adding that “in 2021 United States of America, you are kind of ridiculous if you think you have any real personal privacy left,” he said.

Chuck Reasons, a professor in the Department of Law and Justice at Central Washington University, said we don’t have a general right to privacy in the public sphere.

“When I’m walking down the street, someone can take a picture of me or drive by and film me, as long as it’s not for a nefarious reason,” Reasons said.

People might have reason to worry about their privacy with automated license plate readers, said Jennifer Lee, technology and liberty project manager at ACLU of Washington.

“These cameras may seem innocuous for folks, but (license plate reader) technology is a powerful location tracking tool that has been abused many times in the past,” she said.

For example, automatic license plate readers were a key technology used by the New York Police Department to target the Muslim community for decades and track Muslims attending religious services, she said.

Lee said it’s important that clear safeguards are put in place to consider how the technology may disproportionately affect different members of a community.

Need for transparency

As for the focus on data, both Reasons and Lee said transparency is important.

“I think anytime you have a more rational, logical data-driven approach, that’s good,” Reasons said. “It just has to have some degree of transparency and oversight.”

It’s also important to “make sure the net isn’t too wide” because it’s easy to make broader assumptions once you start collecting data, Reasons said.

“If there’s not oversight, we know from history that there can be abuse of the process,” he said.

Lee said the public has a right to know what version of technology is being adopted, which decisions the technology is making and what data is inputted into the system.

“At the very least, there should be some transparency and public oversight with input from community members that are most likely to be harmed by these technologies weighing in,” Lee said.

Lee also noted that data-driven tools and automated decision systems can reinforce and exacerbate existing inequities within our policing system.

If the data used to determine where to place automatic license plate readers is biased, “surveillance technologies are going to be disproportionately used to surveil lower income folks and people who have been disproportionately overpoliced, overincarcerated and over surveilled in the past,” Lee said.

Murray acknowledged the impact of crime on Yakima’s east side, which has a higher percentage of people of color. He said many of those working with YPD on the community outreach efforts and discussions are people of color.