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LA Police to Begin Tracking Social Media Banter in Effort to Prevent Racially Motivated Crime

A group of about 40 National Socialist Movement members hold a rally outside Los Angeles City Hall. Photo by Anne Cusack/Los Angeles Times.

A group of about 40 National Socialist Movement members hold a rally outside Los Angeles City Hall. Photo by Anne Cusack/Los Angeles Times.

The Los Angeles Police Department is trying out a new concept that will help its officers crack down on race-based crimes before they happen. Their method: monitoring racist dialogue on social media.

According to the Los Angeles Times, British researchers working with Santa Monica, California-based company RAND Corp. will be testing the concept over the next three years, monitoring millions of tweets in the L.A. area in an effort to identify patterns and markers that predict the occurrence of hate crimes. That data will then be compared against records and reports of violent, race-based attacks.

“The insights provided by our work will help U.S. localities to design policies to address specific hate crime issues unique to their jurisdiction and allow service providers to tailor their services to the needs of victims, especially if those victims are members of an emerging category of hate crime targets,” said Cardiff University professor Matthew Williams.

The U.S. Justice Department dumped $60,000 into research by Cardiff University’s Social Data Science Lab — a facility well-known for its predictive social media models, the Los Angeles Times reports. Previous research done by the lab found that Twitter data could be used to pinpoint areas where hate speech was occurring, but not necessarily where hate crimes were being committed. Researchers found the concept useful in immigrant communities where residents were reluctant to report such crimes for fear of being deported.

Clearly there’s a big difference between online, racist threats and an actual hate crime, so how useful can monitoring social media be in both predicting and preventing race-based offenses? Executive director of Cal State San Bernardino’s Center on Hate and Extremism, Brian Levin, notes that this question becomes all the more complicated when dealing with extremist groups who don’t broadcast their work on social media.

“Local tensions may arise to fly and be absent from social media,” he said. “Some segments of the community shun social media … so examining social media as a predictor can be a bit like having one screwdriver and sometimes it doesn’t work.”

According to the Los Angeles Times, the LAPD currently uses predictive policing technology that deploys officers into neighborhoods where crime patterns indicate a high likelihood for similar crimes to be committed over and over again. But with the recent incidents involving fatal shootings of unarmed Black men, it is questioned why the same predictive methodology isn’t used on police officers themselves.

Such shootings have only widened the deep rift between cops and communities of color, so monitoring the social media activity of police officers could potentially help weed out the “bad apples” who hold racially biased views. Not to mention, it would also increase the level of transparency between law enforcement agencies and private citizens.

For instance, the Chadbourn Police Department of North Carolina recently moved to terminate an officer who posted racially offensive comments to his Facebook page in the aftermath of the Keith Lamont Scott shooting in Charlotte. The department fired the officer on the grounds that he acted in a fashion “unbecoming of a police officer” and violated the law enforcement code of conduct.


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