Updated: Aug 2, 2020
By Temi Mwale and Sara Chitseko:
This week, our serious concerns about police surveillance and racial profiling have been exacerbated as we learn about the use of the Origins programme by the Metropolitan police. This dangerous software was designed to ‘identify whether different ethnic groups “specialise” in particular types of crime’, using people’s names to predict their ethnicity or cultural origin and then profiling “perpetrators and victims” of crimes.
Yesterday, the Guardian revealed that Origins was being used by the Met until February 2020, although they were unable to ascertain through their Freedom of Information request, when exactly the software was first deployed. Furthermore, police forces across the country have admitted to using this software, including West Midlands police and Norfolk and Suffolk constabularies.
The software was produced by Webber Phillips - a consultancy which is run by Prof Richard Webber and Trevor Phillips. If we analyse the views of both partners, we can gain further insight into the context of this profiling tool’s creation. On multiple occasions, the views expressed by Phillips (the former Equality and Human Rights Commission chair) have been a cause for serious concern. He has argued that aspects of ‘minority disadvantage’ are ‘self-inflicted’ and frequently espouses the theory of ‘cultural deficit’ when discussing systemic issues and barriers faced by Black communities. Not only did he describe the use of the term “institutional racism” in the MacPherson inquiry, as “a mistake whose consequences are still felt today”, but more recently, he was suspended by the Labour party for Islamophobia (which he denies).
In a 2017 article about Origins in the Police Professional journal, Webber wrote: “Just as each community develops legitimate means of acquiring wealth, it would be surprising if there were not a parallel specialisation in forms of criminality… Sometimes these go together; as, for instance, where the minority population most likely to run petrol stations is also the one that is most proficient in ATM fraud; or when those who run taxi services have the best opportunities to engage in abuse of young girls.” Webber also argued that, “Different patterns of immigrant settlement also call for different forms of policing.” Both Phillips’ and Webber’s statements perpetuate insidious racial stereotypes and support the hostile environment.
In response to the Guardian’s findings, the Met issued a statement saying, “The software was never used for the purpose suggested. It was used to help map communities to allow safer neighbourhood teams to better understand - and therefore more appropriately support – their local communities.” But why would the police adopt and deploy new software for a purpose completely different to what it is designed to do?
The Met’s response fails to address the legitimate concern about the increase of police surveillance technology and the lack of transparency about what tools are currently in use - particularly where they are specifically designed to enable racial profiling. Overall, the use of Origins by any police force only contributes to ever-growing evidence that policing is inherently racist.
The Met can claim that the software was adopted with the intention of enabling police to “better understand communities;” but until the institution takes responsibility for the extreme violence they perpetuate through harassment, surveillance and brutality, they will never be able to understand our communities - let alone support us. The use of these tools fundamentally worsen the already tenuous relationship between over-policed, racialised communities and criminal justice agencies. As the Origins software is not the first, nor the only tool which police deploy, it is critical that these police surveillance tools are recognised as a form of violence.
What is the purpose of attempting to associate specific racial groups with specific ‘types of crime’ other than to increase the justification for the increased targeting and criminalisation of specific communities? From the Origins programme, to facial recognition technology, to gang databases; police use of predictive software, algorithms and surveillance technologies just digitalise racism. The decision to implement the Origins software cannot be isolated from the wider commitment to the securitisation of Black and racialised communities. We must take action to resist these encroaches on our civil liberties.