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Co-optation and Counterinsurgency in Surveillance Reform


The Stop LAPD Spying Coalition (@stoplapdspying) is a community group building power toward abolition of the police state. Formed in 2011, they are based in the Skid Row neighborhood of downtown Los Angeles.

It was a program where police hunted people using data. LAPD’s Operation LASER—which was short for Los Angeles Strategic Extraction and Restoration and ran from 2011 to 2019—was described by its creators as “analogous to laser surgery, where a trained medical doctor uses modern technology to remove tumors.” Police used the Palantir data-mining platform to assign individuals risk scores rating their likelihood of future criminality, and high scorers were targeted as “tumors.” One fifth of the people LAPD labeled “chronic offenders” through this scoring had zero prior arrests or police contact. In a city where Black people are less than a tenth of the population, nearly half those targeted were Black.

The Stop LAPD Spying Coalition’s recent report, “Automating Banishment: The Surveillance and Policing of Looted Lands,” studies the political economy of these data-driven policing tactics. We show that surveillance and data-driven policing are not just invasions of privacy but methods of racial and social control that serve the evolving needs of conquest and racial capitalism that have always driven policing. Building on the report’s analysis, this essay examines LAPD’s use of “reform” strategies to co-opt criticism and expand data-driven policing, with a focus on the role of lawyers and legal academics. We contextualize those strategies within the historical framework of government counterinsurgency, particularly the infiltration of groups organizing autonomous resistance to state violence. This precedent is an important and understudied aspect of the history of surveillance.

In addition to the “predictive” targeting of individuals under LASER, LAPD also designated “LASER zones” where police were deployed on data-driven “missions” to stop people who fit crime “trends,” which were often defined as vaguely as “Black male between ages 18 and 30.” In just six months in 2016, LAPD killed six men and boys in or around these LASER zones. All were Black or Latino, four were teenagers, and four were shot in the back. These kill zones were selected using demographic profiling: the program’s architects first matched crime reports to “street-level” demographic characteristics and then proposed targeted policing in “areas where there is a higher percentage of African-American residents” and “areas with lower owner-occupied housing and higher female-head of households.”

[The] ecosystem of nonprofit reform advocacy must be understood as a form of counterinsurgency, helping the state absorb the shocks generated by abolitionist organizing.

Yet when LASER launched, advocacy nonprofits like the Vera Institute for Justice promoted it as an example of “predictive policing” methodologies that police across the country should adopt. As the community in Los Angeles organized against LASER’s violence, LAPD pointed to Vera’s endorsement to defend the program. Eventually we won the day, forcing an end to LASER in April 2019. A year later, LAPD shuttered another “predictive policing” program named PredPol. But that very same month, LAPD announced Data-Informed Community-Focused Policing, a new surveillance framework promising to “implement systems that measure results, improve efficiency, and provide overall accountability.” PredPol rebranded itself as a “police accountability” tool named Geolitica, changing its slogan from “The Predictive Policing Company™” to “Data-Driven Community Policing.”

“Reforming” Predictive Policing

The notions of “accountability,” “efficiency,” and “community policing” are not what those who worked to end predictive policing in Los Angeles fought for. We demanded abolition. But policing exists within an ecology where reformist institutions are eager to supply police the intellectual justifications for retooling their violence. For example, just a month after LAPD ended the LASER program and while the PredPol program remained in operation, law professor Andrew Ferguson emailed an LAPD Deputy Chief with “a suggestion about how I think you should approach predictive policing 2.0,” proposing a “pivot to a more police accountability focus.” Ferguson also sent the same proposal to the product manager of a predictive policing technology now sold by the ShotSpotter corporation, asking: “Have you guys thought about spinning out a new product (not predictive policing) but branded solely for police accountability?” He added that the new product didn’t need to differ functionally from the “predictive policing” system, “but it would be just pitched differently.”

Another way predictive policing has been “reformed” is by creating legal frameworks for approval of police technologies, an approach we have labeled “surveillance bureaucracy.” For example, in June 2020, New York City enacted the POST Act, which empowers police to write use policies and perform impact audits for surveillance technologies. Politicians and legal reformers joined hands to celebrate this law as a “tremendous” and “vital” victory. The truth is that legislation empowering police to self-report on their surveillance was the easiest possible “win” in this moment, betraying the bolder visions of the abolitionist mass movement forming on the streets. Sure enough, just a few months after the law was enacted, its proponents began calling it “weak” and expressing surprise that the NYPD “systematically attempted to evade the law.” Abolitionists had warned this would happen.

Similar legislative proposals came to Los Angeles last year at the invitation of police. In September, LAPD officials hosted a presentation by Brian Hofer, who runs the surveillance reform nonprofit Secure Justice. Hofer has no known ties to Los Angeles, no accountability to the community here, and no personal experience with LAPD’s racial terror. Perhaps for those reasons, LAPD introduced him as “a source of expertise that we’ve been able to turn to” on surveillance reform. Emails that we obtained through public records requests showed that, in an earlier private presentation Hofer made to LAPD, he told police that “no surveillance proposal has been permanently rejected” under the legislative model he was proposing. LAPD officials were no doubt happy to hear that. Two months later, they packaged Hofer’s proposals into a budget demand seeking $213 million in increased funding.

Co-optation and Counterinsurgency

These dynamics—police handpicking “community” avatars to propose the “reforms” they want—must be understood in the history of the state’s strategies to undermine radical movement-building. Throughout history, state suppression of radical movements has taken the more sensational forms of law enforcement agents physically infiltrating community groups, blackmailing informants, and assassinating activist leaders. But with the rise of the nonprofit-industrial complex in the early 1970s, police have rarely needed to go through the same trouble to – in the words of an FBI memo describing COINTELPRO – “expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, or otherwise neutralize” radical organizing. Instead, police today simply collaborate with reform professionals hired as consultants or prop up “community advisory boards” “community policing” and “community outreach” initiatives designed to cultivate buy-in for police violence from those invested in the preservation of policing.

Consider the NYU School of Law’s Policing Project, hired by LAPD in 2017 to run a “community engagement” process for its body camera policies. Founded by two white law professors, Policing Project says it works both to “strengthen policing” and, using language popularized by abolitionists, “reimagine public safety.” The nonprofit uses funding from the police technology industry – including Axon, Amazon, ShotSpotter, Microsoft, and Mark43 – to help police write administrative rules for this industry’s products. The companies then profit from the nonprofit’s work. For example, after implementing body camera policies written by Policing Project, LAPD paid $36 million to Policing Project funder Axon for hardware as well as data analysis and storage services. Likewise, ShotSpotter, which also funds the Policing Project and whose CEO sits on the nonprofit’s board, has cited Policing Project “research” promoting the company’s products in news coverage linking the technology to police killings and in a lawsuit the company filed against journalists. Policing Project even advises police on how to manage community resistance to their funders’ products: in 2020, the nonprofit’s founder Barry Friedman met with LAPD to pitch an effort to help “law enforcement to overcome the negative perceptions of tech in the delivery of police services.” In other words, he worked to directly undermine the efforts of community groups like ours.

This ecosystem of nonprofit reform advocacy must be understood as a form of counterinsurgency, helping the state absorb the shocks generated by abolitionist organizing. One way reformers do this is through a commitment to experimenting on our communities, increasingly under the grotesque premise that racial violence should be calibrated using data. Another is by diverting abolitionist movement-building toward dependence on state institutions, insisting that communities rising up against the violence of policing simply need to improve our trust in those who dominate and displace us.

The opposite of reform is building a culture of resistance. Today, state-subsidized nonprofits are home to a pale mimicry of the community action that the state worked to crush in prior decades, including Black, Indigenous, migrant, and poor people’s movements organizing to provide health care, meals, political education, collective study, and community self-defense to our people, all within an agenda of securing autonomy from the state. This culture of resistance and autonomy is what we must vitalize to dismantle the surveillance state.