Catch Me Once, Catch Me 218 Times

Josh Kaplan at Slate: “…It was 2010, and the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department had recently rolled out a database called GraffitiTracker—software also used by police departments in Denver and Los Angeles County—and over the previous year, they had accumulated a massive set of images that included a couple hundred photos with his moniker. Painting over all Kyle’s handiwork, prosecutors claimed, had cost the county almost $100,000, and that sort of damage came with life-changing consequences. Ultimately, he made a plea deal: one year of incarceration, five years of probation, and more than $87,000 in restitution.

Criticism of police technology often gets mired in the complexities of the algorithms involved—the obscurity of machine learning, the feedback loops, the potentials for racial bias and error. But GraffitiTracker can tell us a lot about data-driven policing in part because the concept is so simple. Whenever a public works crew goes to clean up graffiti, before they paint over it, they take a photo and put it in the county database. Since taggers tend to paint the same moniker over and over, now whenever someone is caught for vandalism, police can search the database for their pseudonym and get evidence of all the graffiti they’ve ever done.

In San Diego County, this has radically changed the way that graffiti is prosecuted and has pumped up the punishment for taggers—many of whom are minors—to levels otherwise unthinkable. The results have been lucrative. In 2011, the first year San Diego started using GraffitiTracker countywide (a few San Diego jurisdictions already had it in place), the amount of restitution received for graffiti jumped from about $170,000 to almost $800,000. Roughly $300,000 of that came from juvenile cases. For the jurisdictions that weren’t already using GraffitiTracker, the jump was even more stark: The annual total went from $45,000 to nearly $400,000. In these cities, the average restitution ordered in adult cases went from $1,281 to $5,620, and at the same time, the number of cases resulting in restitution tripled. (San Diego has said it makes prosecuting vandalism easier.)

Almost a decade later, San Diego County and other jurisdictions are still using GraffitiTracker, yet it’s received very little media attention, despite the startling consequences for vandalism prosecution. But its implications extend far beyond tagging. GraffitiTracker presaged a deeper problem with law enforcement’s ability to use technology to connect people to crimes that, as Deputy District Attorney Melissa Ocampo put it to me, “they thought they got away with.”…(More)”.