It’s been just over a year since Mayor LaToya Cantrell created the Gun Violence Reduction Task Force, a group of seven volunteers and Cantrell’s Director of Strategic Initiatives Joshua Cox. Since then, her administration has provided scant details to the public about what exactly it’s working on.
But in October, using communications obtained through a public records request, The Lens reported that the task force was creating a new tool to identify individual residents deemed to be at a high risk for involvement in a gun crime. Those individuals would then be targeted for “impactful social interventions,” rather than a strict law enforcement response, as was the case with a similar program created under former Mayor Mitch Landrieu.
That information was combed out of emails obtained by The Lens. The Cantrell administration had not publicly announced the project, nor did it respond to repeated requests for comment on the story.
But new emails obtained by The Lens show that progress continues, even as the Cantrell administration remains quiet.
Late last year, the city drafted a cooperative endeavor agreement with Andrew Papachristos, a professor at Northwestern University whose research inspired the Chicago Police Department’s controversial “heat list,” which ranks residents based on their likelihood of being involved in a shooting. It’s unclear if the agreement has been finalized, as only Papachristos’ signature appears on it, but emails indicate that the NOPD is already transferring data to him.
According to the CEA, Papachristos will “complete a series of criminological studies” that use “social network analysis” to “examine gang faction and co-offender networks.” Papachristos will then “identify individuals to whom we should deliver interventions,” according to an August 2018 memo. That target population identified at the time was “a couple thousand people,” according to the memo.
The CEA says that the NOPD will only provide Papachristos with information about people aged 18 years or older. But in February, Papachristos wrote an email indicating that he wanted juvenile data as well.
“Hoping that getting juveniles will increase our matching,” he wrote.
The CEA with Papachristos was designed in coordination with the New Orleans Police Department, which is administering the agreement. The NOPD is providing Papahristos with data on gun violence and gun violence prevention, going back to 2011, for the analyses.
But it remains unclear whether that is the extent of the department’s role in the program, or whether officers can access Papachristos’ analyses to guide their policing.
That’s only one of many open questions. It’s still unclear how Papachristos is determining risk, whether a list has already been created, what the interventions will look like, or how the city is protecting those identified in the program from being targeted by law enforcement. Neither the Cantrell administration, the NOPD nor Papachristos responded to requests for comment.
“There seems to be a complete lack of public information,” said Bruce Hamilton, a staff attorney at the ACLU of Louisiana. “It’s concerning given the history with Palantir and the way that program was used and the secrecy that surrounded that program. And it seems very much like what’s going on now is kind of building on that past. So it has a bad taste to begin with.”
Hamilton was referring to the “Gotham” software created by Palantir Technologies, a company founded by Silicon Valley Billionaire Peter Thiel with funding from the CIA. Palantir claims the software can identify people at high risk of being involved in gun violence by analyzing police reports, social media and other databases, including jailhouse phone logs.
In February 2018, an article in The Verge revealed that unbeknownst to most, the city of New Orleans had been using the software since 2012 to create a list of 3,900 people who the software deemed to be at highest risk.
That list guided former Landrieu’s Group Violence Reduction Strategy notification sessions — more commonly known as “call-ins” — a part of his NOLA for Life violence reduction program. During the call-ins, suspected gang members were brought to meetings with social program providers and law enforcement from the local, state and federal level.
The idea was to give participants a choice: engage with social programs and start walking the righteous path, or expose yourself to stricter policing and “enhanced prosecution.”
The ACLU and other critics condemned the program as a predictive policing tool that unfairly punished people for crimes they had yet to commit.
A 2016 NOLA for Life progress report said that about 75 percent of call-in attendees signed up for social services.
But a 2015 review by American Society of Criminology found that, of 158 call-in attendees between 2012 and 2014, only 25 actually received services. Meanwhile, the city’s multi-agency gang unit used the software to aid in the arrest of 83 suspected gang members during the same period.
Ursula Price, the executive director of the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice, said that even if the NOPD is not directly involved in this new program’s interventions, she would still be worried if the NOPD had access to the list of individuals.
“NOPD does this thing called proactive policing, where they basically target certain individuals where they use pretexts like traffic stops to try to make arrests on these individuals,” said Price, who formerly worked as deputy monitor at the Office of the New Orleans Independent Police Monitor. “To me, my first thought was that this is giving them an updated list of people to target.”
Emails between members of the task force indicate that they want the new program to be different from Landrieu’s. Members have said in emails that the program will not be “law enforcement led.” Notes from an August meeting of the Task Force said that the approach will “engage with at risk population with social services rather than law enforcement mechanisms.”
But at that same meeting, there appeared to be some disagreement among members of the task force as to what the role of the NOPD should be.
Flozell Daniels, the executive director of Foundation for Louisiana, is a volunteer member of the task force. At the August meeting, he said the group needed to “reconcile idea of how we can rely so heavily on social services without including law enforcement.”
Another council member, Nathalie Simon, suggested increasing law enforcement resources and capacity for deterrence. “If we solve more crimes, less likely to feel like you can get away with it,” the meeting notes say. Simon is a special council at Laitram, a Harahan-based manufacturing firm.
The task force has also been engaging with at least two NOPD employees.
NOPD homicide unit commander Ryan Lubrano was scheduled to appear at the task force’s second meeting in October, according to the agenda. From 2012 to 2015, Lubrano served as a sergeant in the multi-agency gang unit, which used data analyses produced by Palantir’s software. In May 2016, an analyst with that unit created a “gang member scorecard” that ranked individuals based on involvement in gun crime.
The NOPD did not respond to repeated requests for comment for this story.
The other NOPD representative involved in the task force was Ben Horwitz, who served as the the department’s director of analytics before leaving in April.
Jashua Cox, who leads the task force, referred to Horwitz as a “lock-step partner on this from the police side” in an October email.
“I appreciate the work of the Gun Violence Reduction Task Force and was glad I was able to have some involvement as the Director of Analytics at NOPD to bring a data-driven approach to their work,” Horwitz told The Lens in an email.
Horwitz left the NOPD to start a company called AH Datalytics. His co-founder is Jeff Asher, a former analyst for the CIA and Department of Defense who has more recently worked for the city of New Orleans and the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office. Asher is a volunteer member of Cantrell’s new task force.
Asher was involved in the NOPD’s work using the Palantir software. He was one of the two primary analysts who used the Palantir software to create the list of 3,900 at risk New Orleans residents, according to The Verge. He declined to comment for this story.
Asher helped bring Papachristos in to the fold to develop the new tool. While Papachristos wasn’t personally involved in the Palantir software, his research was foundational for how the software was utilized in New Orleans, according to a Palantir white paper.
In 2017, Asher wrote a Gambit cover story entitled “A blueprint for murder reduction in New Orleans.” He lists four steps.
First, he recommended increasing the manpower of the NOPD. He also encouraged the city’s expansion of surveillance cameras and license plate readers. Second, he said the NOPD should beef up its drug enforcement activity. He mentioned that pre-arrest diversion programs should play a role as well.
His third recommendation was what the Gun Crime Reduction Task Force is doing — identifying at-risk residents and intervening. He quoted Papachristos in the piece: “If we have this social map, we can send first responders, trauma specialists, interventionists and police if necessary.”
Last, he said that law enforcement alone cannot solve the issue, and that the city must invest far more money in social programs.
Papachristos’ research encourages policy makers to view gun violence like an infectious disease.
In a 2013 Washington Post op-ed, Papachristos said that gun violence “in the way it is transmitted, bears striking similarities to public health epidemics such as cholera in Haiti or HIV/AIDS in the United States.”
“You’re more likely to ‘catch’ the disease if you engage in risky behaviors with someone who might be infected,” he wrote. “The solution is not broad, sweeping policies, such as New York’s ‘stop and frisk’ or mass arrests, but the opposite: highly targeted efforts to reach specific people in specific places, akin to providing clean needles to drug users to prevent the spread of HIV.”
Papachristos’ work is part of a popular theory in criminology: the majority of urban gun violence is concentrated among a small portion of the city’s population, and the population that is most likely to commit a gun crime is more or less made up of the same people that are most likely to be victimized by gun violence.
In a 2015 study published in Social Science and Medicine, Papachristos and two other researchers found that 70 percent of all nonfatal gunshot victims in Chicago over a six-year period were within social networks that comprised only 6 percent of the city’s population.
His theories and research laid the foundation for Chicago’s Strategic Subject List, also known as the heat list, which uses an algorithm to catalog individual risk scores (ranging from 0 to 520) for almost 400,000 people. The list has guided the Chicago Police Department’s arrest sweeps on multiple occasions.
In 2016, a group of researchers analyzed the 426 people rated at highest risk on the Chicago Police Department’s heat list. They found that while those people were no more or less likely to be the victim of a gun crime than those in a control group, they were more likely to be arrested. The study suggested that one potential reason for the higher arrest rate was that officers were using the list to guide their policing.
Papachristos has distanced himself from how Chicago is utilizing the list, and wrote an article in the Chicago Tribune in 2016 encouraging the city to use the list to inform a public health response rather than a criminal justice one. But as Papachristos has admitted, what cities decide to do with his research is not up to him.
“I’m not in the business of designing programs or policies, but I work with people to think about how we can design interventions that are informed by data and research,” he told Northwestern Now News, a university publication in March. “That’s how I see my role.”
“I can’t control what people are gonna do with the work that we’ve done,” he said in a 2017 interview with Gizmodo.
Finding social services that can make a noticeable impact is no easy task.
Along with Papachristos, the task force has engaged Dr. Jennifer Doleac of Texas A&M University to help measure the impact of its programing. In an undated PowerPoint presentation to the task force obtained by The Lens, she laid out several options for intervention services. She notes that few non-law enforcement led intervention strategies have been proven to work.
“We should assume that most things will fail,” the PowerPoint says at its conclusion. “Be humble and aim to fail quickly. … Keep trying until we figure out what works.”
Papachristos’ research has also been criticized for relying on historical police data, which may contain racial and other biases.
“There have been studies that have shown that these types of programs can increase racial disparities, because they’re based on data that was created in a system of racial disparity,” Price said.
The NOPD is currently under a consent decree with the United States Department of Justice for a litany of failures, civil rights violations and constitutional infractions.
“NOPD has failed to take sufficient steps to detect, prevent, or address bias-based profiling and other forms of discriminatory policing on the basis of race, ethnicity, or LGBT status, despite widespread concern and troubling racial disparities in arrest rates and other data,” said the 2011 DOJ investigation that sparked the consent decree.
“Garbage in equals garbage out,” said Hamilton of the ACLU of Louisiana.
There are also some experts who question whether cities should be focusing on high-risk individuals at all, including Dr. Michael B. Greene, a Senior Fellow at the Rutgers School of Criminal Justice.
“The focus on contagion is really misdirected,” he told The Lens. “One, it focuses way too much on the individual, as if there’s something wrong with that individual. And I think a more productive focus is to focus on the conditions that lead folks to get involved in violence. … The focus on contagion ignores structural factors such as institutional racism or institutional violence, which oppresses people who are generally considered ‘at risk.'”
‘There are ways to do it right’
What really worries some criminal justice and civil rights activists like Asher and Price is the secrecy — or at least the lack of public messaging — of the Gun Violence Reduction Task Force.
Early on, Papachristos pushed for transparency.
“What do you think about holding some sort of series of meetings with residents to talk about ‘predictive prevention’ (we should coin that phrase, btw)?” he wrote in an August email to Asher. “Rather than repeat Palantir, we should start to tell people what we’re going to do and have an avenue for input?”
Asher was supportive. But not everyone on the task force agreed.
“Don’t know that we have the capacity to execute on that really well at scale,” Cox responded.
Asher pushed back, saying that he “always envisioned a series of focus group sessions with our at-risk population, possibly hosted by the Mayor or somebody in the Admin to better understand what types of programs can help.”
It’s unclear whether those sessions ever occured, although there is no evidence that they did. Greene, for his part, told The Lens that he agreed with Asher and Papachristos about the importance of community input.
“The most important thing with these type of programs is to make sure the people you’re trying to help are engaged as active participants in any such coalition,” he said. “So if you just target those who you think need help or are doing bad things, that’s not going to work. … You have to engage them in the coalition. Not as the subjects to be helped, although they will be helped, but as partners in trying to figure out the best strategies.”
As for the public roll out, that hasn’t happened yet.
“I’m not saying there’s no way to do this, although I’ll tell you that everyone in my community is not happy about being surveilled,” Price said. “But if you are going to do it, you must adhere to democracy and transparency. There are ways to do it right, but secrecy is not going to inspire trust, and if we don’t trust you we can’t be your partners.”