5 Bizarre, Less-Talked-About Problems with the Police

5 Bizarre, Less-Talked-About Problems with the Police

If there is one thing wrong with the police that we can all agree on, it's the fact they've never implemented Helene Adelaide Shelby's 1927 idea for a robotic interrogation skeleton with glowing red eyes that could extract confessions (and presumably feces) from terrified criminals. But that's, shockingly, not the only area where the cops dropped the ball.

 In fact, some of the biggest problems with the police include stuff that you may not even be aware of, like the fact that ...

Police Use "Mind-Reading" Tests to Determine Guilt

On American TV shows, police interrogations tend to resemble amateur dental surgery performed with phone books. But the reality is much darker than that. In real life, US police are more likely to ask you to write your statement down and then conclude that you're a murderer because you used a synonym one too many times.

American law enforcement agencies, including the FBI, CIA, and local police departments, have spent decades determining guilt using the Scientific Content Analysis method, or SCAN for short, which of course is a reference to the movie Scanners because once you hear what SCAN is, your head will explode from the stupidity. SCAN is basically a sentence analysis system that determines whether a written confession is truthful or deceitful. Guilt can apparently be determined by a person not using "I" in their statements because if you write down "Shot a man just to watch him die," the lack of a 1st person pronoun will cunningly obscure your involvement in the crime. Also, writing "a girlfriend" instead of "my girlfriend" apparently points to detachment and guilt. So, just a heads up, the cops think anyone with more than one girlfriend is automatically a criminal, those dorks.

LightField Studios/Shutterstock
So fair point to our 9th-grade grammar teacher; proper semicolon use might matter after all.

All of the above examples actually come from a SCAN analysis of a written statement by Ricky Joyner, who was sentenced for the murder of Sandra Hernandez. Now, he wasn't arrested based JUST on the SCAN results ... because they are so hilarious unscientific, they are less admissible in court than a working gun constructed out of heroin that shoots bullets made of false accusations. However, they did what they did to plant the idea of Joyner's guilt in the investigators' heads, which might have made them try and make the evidence fit their conclusion instead of the other way around. There have been serious doubts cast at the entire investigation.

And for damn good reason. There is currently ZERO empirical evidence that the SCAN method is anything other than reading tea leaves, and some police officers have admitted that they don't really understand it. They just follow the manual and have faith that the test works. A test, by the way, that's been created by a company with the most '90s-looking website in existence. (Seriously, don't click on that link. It's like getting hit in the eyes with a slap bracelet.)

Some Departments Use "Preemptive Harassment" to Prevent Crime

We've always known that Florida is not exactly like the rest of the United States. Still, you really get a sense of just how different things are there when you learn that Minority Report only came out in Florida in 2011 instead of in 2002 like in the rest of the country. At least, we assume that's what happened because it was around 2011 that the Pasco County sheriff decided that the best way to keep the peace is to stop future criminals from future-criming. And since his budget allowed for a kiddie pool but sadly no pre-cog kids to fill it with, he instead had to use a cheaper form of junk science.

In case it isn't already clear, easily discreditable "science" will be a theme today.

The Pasco sheriff took all of his county arrest records and mixed them with unspecified intelligence reports and probably eye of newt to give his recipe that additional kick of quackery, and came up with a list of people that were likely to commit a crime. And then he basically announced it was open season on them. When patrol officers got a name off the list, they were to find them and harass them "until they move or sue." Fines were issued for missing mailboxes or overgrown grass. Another target's father was arrested because his son's friend smoked a cigarette in his house, while another kid's parent on the list was harassed at her work. Since September 2015, the Pasco County sheriff's department conducted about 12,500 of these kinds of "checks."

Now, although it would've made for a perfect segue into a "Minority" Report joke, it turns out that the arrests weren't disproportionately targeting POC. But "it's not racist" is a pretty low bar for success. Yet that was apparently enough to deem the program a success because it now has a $2.8 million budget and 30 analysts working on it, combing through people's arrest records, Facebook posts, and bank statements. Then they feed the data into their proprietary algorithm, which assigns points to people, and if you get enough of them, you win a visit from the Harassment Squad. Incidentally, you get points even if you were just a witness to a crime.

Some of you may think that since it is a computer program doing the work, then the entire process is kind of objective, but that brings us to another problem with the cops ...

A Lot of Police Software Operates on Extremely Biased Data

Computers don't make mistakes, but they're also programmed by humans who make mistakes all the time (see: All of human history), so, yes, actually, computers do make mistakes. That's kind of a big problem and not just because of the risk that a proctology bot gets mistakenly installed with software meant for excavator diggers.

For example, courts use algorithms when granting bail, etc. to determine how likely a person is to steal silver candlesticks from a priest or rob a random kid of Halloween candy after being released. Judges in Arizona, Colorado, Delaware, Kentucky, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin base their decisions on these kinds of risk assessments. And the thing is, a lot of those programs are *dun-dun-duuuun* biased against Black people. According to a study of arrest records in Broward County, Florida, the risk assessment algorithm developed by one company, Northpointe, was more likely to false flag Black people as "high risk" re-offenders. On the other hand, white people were more often mislabeled as "low risk" so it all kind of evened out. Wait ...

Via ProPublica
Like Gregory Lugo here who was rated the lowest possible re-offense risk after a DUI ... his fourth DUI.

This is not an isolated incident. Recent studies of predictive policing systems in 13 jurisdictions (used to identify problem areas in cities, etc.) have shown that most of them were operating on "dirty data." Some of it is unconscious bias, while some of it is a vicious feedback loop. When bad data tells you to patrol one area more often, you're more likely to spot more crime there, which causes you to patrol it more ... well, you get the general idea.

Bias in facial recognition software is the weirdest of the bunch, though. According to a study of 100 different systems, facial recognition used by cops falsely identifies African-American and Asian faces 10-to-100 times more than white ones. You'd think that this wouldn't be an issue because when the cops go to arrest a suspect and see that they look nothing like the culprit in a security video, they'd realize that the computer was wrong and apologize. Robert Julian-Borchak Williams probably thought so, and now he is the first American to be arrested due to a false facial recognition algorithm match. Can you imagine the frustration of holding up a photo of some other dude next to your face, asking how the hell could anyone mistake you two, only to be told, "But the computer ..."?

Police Learn How to Spot Lies from a Person Who Thinks She's Sherlock House M.D.

Sometimes, you don't have the time to sit a suspect down, have him write you a story, and count the number of commas in it to determine where he's hidden the hydrogen bomb with the President's niece tied to it. When that happens, police departments around the US turn to the teachings of Renee Ellory, the "Eyes for Lies" expert who is apparently one of the 50 best people in the world when it comes to recognizing when someone is lying.

This woman, who we just know owns a cape with pictures of eyes on it, can tell if you're telling the truth by the way you breathed out of your left nostril when saying you couldn't have committed the murder because you were "out that night... at the car store... buying more carburetor." And Ellory can teach all of her secrets to you (just as she did to police departments in Wisconsin, Georgia, Nevada, and Texas) for only $1,950. Now, that while may sound like a lot, there's also the added bonus of there being no scientific evidence that any of her methods actually work.

We have an easier method for spotting a crook.  Look at this photo of Renee Ellory; you've spotted one.

Ellory's theories are based on the idea of universal facial expressions and so-called microexpressions, the latter of which are not universal, while the former is treated by science about as seriously as fin rot instances among Loch Ness monsters. It's all junk pseudoscience that can lead to cops becoming so convinced that an innocent person is guilty that it might push them into making a false confession or ignore evidence pointing to the real culprit.

Yet thousands of police officers have signed up for the classes because, among other things, it makes them feel like they have superpowers. Also, shows like House or Sherlock have taught us that when you're the kind of genius who can deduct the truth from the way someone twitches their nose, you get to act like a total dickweed 24/7. Not saying that's the main reason people take these classes, but it probably doesn't hurt.

Cops Are Regularly Attending Pseudoscience "Killology" Courses

Killing is and should be a significant thing. The only way to make it not weigh heavily on your conscience is to stop looking at other people as, well, people. Only then can ending a human life become "not that big a deal." There are maybe two jobs where skills like that would be welcomed, and one of them is the guy who turns the Hitler clones into food for dogs that have stolen from cancer charities. Spoiler: the other one is not the police. However, many departments are still sending their officers to "Killology" seminars so they can learn to be more Okay with executing people in the streets.

Called "The Bulletproof Mind," the courses are run by Dave Grossman, a retired Army Ranger and West Point instructor, not to mention just a weird-ass guy who recommends killing because, according to him, it leads to great sex. Still, his resume has made it possible for him to spend 20 years traveling the US up to 300 days a year, teaching his "Killology" philosophy to police departments around the country. According to Grossman, police officers have to think of themselves as "warriors" who are "at war" with the streets. The course also teaches you to look at all criminals and potential suspects as predators ready to kill you at a moment's notice. That's probably not the best mindset to have for people who spend roughly 1% of their time actually dealing with violent crimes.

Sorry, no funny caption, unless you find the sentence "Dave Grossman is a literal ghoul," especially humorous.

Look, obviously, police officers need psychological training to prepare themselves for the possibility of one day ending a human life. But the solution isn't a gross man yelling at them to imagine shooting Big Bird and then running back home to fuck their wives with their giant murder-erections (murderections?) Police departments have thankfully started to turn away from Grossman's courses, but, unthankfully, it was only after it turned out that the police officer who ended up killing Philando Castile was a Killology graduate. And here you thought that that case could not get any more tragic. That will teach you to underestimate Hellworld.

Follow Cezary on Twitter.

Top image: Fotokita, Kzenon/Shutterstock

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