By Tim Sheehan
Fresno City Council members put the brakes on a proposal by police Chief Jerry Dyer for specialized computer software to scour online public records databases to quickly provide officers with information about addresses on 911 emergency calls.
Citing their own concerns and those raised by representatives of Faith in Community, the council voted 5-0 on Thursday to reject Dyer’s request to enter a five-year, $132,000 contract with Intrado Inc. for its Beware software.
The Beware software generated significant controversy in Fresno earlier this year over its capacity to sift through address-specific public data that can be passed along to first responders, as well as its ability to also comb through individuals’ public postings to social media such as Twitter, Facebook or Instagram and assign color-coded threat levels based on posts that may indicate a potential danger to responding officers.
That feature raised major concerns among pastors on the Faith in Community board, the American Civil Liberties Union and council members themselves, and prompted the Fresno Police Department and Intrado to disable that feature of the software over the last few months of Fresno’s testing period for the program.
The vote means that Fresno will no longer be using the Beware software, Dyer said.
Despite assurances by Dyer and Intrado representative Michael Lee that Fresno’s proposed agreement with Intrado included a clause that would immediately terminate the contract if the social-media screening and threat-coding capabilities were activated, council members and pastors who spoke Thursday were unmoved.
“We’re concerned about more than the bells and whistles, or the front-end software,” said Booker T. Lewis, pastor of Rising Star Missionary Baptist Church and a Faith in Community board member. “But there is a need to understand the back-end algorithms and variables used to make conclusions about the people of our community.”
Lewis spoke to a degree of public skepticism over the trustworthiness of the police department. “Today we have an opportunity to take a major step toward true community policing by having true community participation,” he said. “The police are asking us to trust them. That calls for community involvement and participation” in the process of implementing software like Beware.
Chris Breedlove, another Faith in Community board member and pastor at the United Church of Christ, called for police, the City Council and the community to develop “an ordinance … to hold software and technology and the police department accountable as they use that technology.”
Breedlove suggested that the city put together a law comparable to that governing the police department’s use of body-mounted video cameras. “Something like that to instill confidence in the general public is essential to building that confidence between the police department and the community it serves,” he said.
“This is not something I would never support,” Brandau said. “We need some type of community forum for people across this city, for all different types of concerns, to understand what the police department is asking for.”
According to a police memo to the council, Beware’s databases “contain data on close to 100 percent of the adult population, and close to 100 percent of residential addresses.” Those include landline and cellphone registrations to home addresses. Beware also collects court records on a daily basis to make available to police.
“All of the information accessed in real time is information that is readily available to members of the community, to the media, to anyone,” Dyer said. The difference is the speed with which Beware can correlate phone and address information from a 911 call to provide data on names, vehicles and other data associated with a particular address or phone number and relay that to dispatchers, who can then pass it along to officers by radio or over their in-car computer.
If a court record denotes some prior criminal history for a person associated with an address, Beware notes that with an asterisk on the computer screen; officers can then scroll down for more details if they are available. An earlier feature of the software, now disabled in Fresno’s testing of the program, was a red/yellow/green color coding of threats related to what was found in court records. The asterisk notation has replaced the color coding.
More community input
As council members called for greater community collaboration in the software decision, Dyer voiced his own frustration. He said he has engaged a chief’s advisory board that includes public representatives, as well as Faith in Community and the local media, to show how the Beware software works in the department’s Real Time Crime Center.
“What I need to know is, what would the council like me to do, and what ‘community’ we are talking about out of a half-million people,” Dyer said. “This technology is an incredible tool for law enforcement. It’s going to save lives. I hate to see an extremely valuable tool lost because of a lack of understanding or awareness.”
A $28,000 Homeland Security Agency grant to cover the first year of the contract expires in April, Dyer added. By failing to authorize the contract Thursday, he said, that money will be lost. “We won’t be coming back to the council again on this issue this year,” he said.
At the urging of City Manager Bruce Rudd, council members agreed that they would host community meetings in their districts over the next 60 days to solicit public input about the use of the software and safeguards desired to provide oversight.
“There are two concerns here. One is proper policing, and the other is community input,” Brandau told Dyer. “At $28,000, community involvement is outweighing the other. … I’m open to what you’re saying, that you need this tool, but that is outweighed by the community’s need for involvement.” He added that he’s unconcerned about wasting the Homeland Security grant. “If it were $28 million, that might be a different story. … But I think we can find 28 grand.”
District 6 Councilman Lee Brand agreed. “It’s the (police department’s) responsibility to find a way to engage the community. There’s obviously a lot of mistrust out there right now that we need to deal with,” he said. But, he added, “It’s clear that the mood of the council is to find a way to implement this technology.”