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NSW Police has a 'secret algorithm' that judges how likely someone is to commit a crime

NSW police on patrol in Sydney, Photo: Brendon Thorne/ Getty .

A new study has accused NSW Police of using a computer algorithm to identify people that are deemed to be a high chance of committing a crime, and targetting them for extra scrutiny and monitoring.

UNSW academic Dr Vicki Sentas, the lead author of the Policing Young People in NSW: A study of the Suspect Targeting Management Plan (STMP) report, said the algorithm calculates a person’s future risk of offending to classify them into one of extreme, high, medium or low risk groups.

Individuals placed on the STMP program are then “repeatedly detained and searched while going about their everyday lives” and “visited at home at all hours of the day”.

“This type of heavy-handed proactive policing is very damaging to the relationship between young people and the police and we believe it undermines key objectives of the NSW Justice system, including diversion, rehabilitation and therapeutic justice,” said Sentas.

Other than the outcome, secrecy surrounds the STMP program and the algorithm. Individuals targeted by the program are reportedly not told of the reasons behind their listing nor their actual risk rating.

Dr Sentas’ report found young people under the age of 25 and indigenous citizens are disproportionately targeted by the STMP, and the algorithm makes decisions based on “discriminatory assumptions”.

NSW Police provided a statement to Business Insider that confirmed SMTP was in operation to target “recidivist criminal offenders” without regard to age and prevent them from committing crimes.

“A thorough risk management framework is used to ensure the NSW Police Force is targeting the right people at the right times to reduce violence and crime in the community,” the statement read.

“On all occasions, the STMP undergoes a quality assurance process by a senior police officer to ensure the validity of the process. While deliberately engaged by police, STMP nominees are treated with respect and tolerance, but they are reminded that the community will not tolerate criminal behaviour.”

Dr Sentas’ report was based on data from NSW Police itself and examined the activities of 10 local area commands over the 2015 financial year.

The report told of the case of one 15-year-old indigenous person who was put on the STMP after theft convictions but with no history of violent offences. Police frequently contacted him at local landmarks where he spent time with other teenagers, as well as monitoring him from cars parked outside his home.

The police caused the family stress when they knocked on the door to enquire about the teen’s whereabouts and the company he was keeping. One of the teenager’s siblings, the report stated, then suffered an anxiety disorder and could not complete the HSC, while the family was later evicted from the home after the stigma attributed to the constant police presence.

The family’s lawyer believes the family was driven out of the area as a result of police harassment, but was unable to make a formal complaint to NSW Police after he lost contact with the teenager.

“Some young people, as young as 13, report being stopped and searched in public including on the train, sometimes several times a week, and visited at home by police, late at night, for no specific reason. We know that children as young as 10 have been placed on an STMP,” said the report’s co-author Camilla Pandolfini.

Dr Sentas called on the police to stop placing children under the age of 18 on the STMP and to be more transparent about how the algorithm works.

“If NSW Police say the STMP prevents crime, then show us how – make the data publicly available and let the Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research (BOCSAR) assess it,” she said.

“We also recommend that the Law Enforcement Conduct Commission conduct a comprehensive review, assessing whether the policy is consistent with fair, effective and appropriate policing not only for young people, but for everyone.”

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