Sarah Brayne, "Predict and Surveil: Data, Discretion, and the Future of Policing" (Oxford UP, 2020)


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Police use of advanced data collection and analysis technologies—or, "big data policing"—continues to receive both positive and negative attention through media, activism, and politics. While some high-profile cases illustrate its potential to hasten investigations or even solve previously unsolved crimes, and others showcase risks to individual liberties and vulnerable communities, we know surprisingly little about how and why police departments actually adopt and deploy these tools.

Sarah Brayne's new book, Predict and Surveil: Data, Discretion, and the Future of Policing (Oxford UP, 2021) provides the first in-depth study of these questions. Dr. Brayne recorded observations and interviews over a 5-year period of ethnographic fieldwork and follow-up with the LAPD. In the book, she examines the roles of extra- and intra-departmental factors in the uptake of big data tools, their relationship to the practice and culture of policing, and the impacts and reactions they've precipitated among captains, sworn officers, civilian analysts, and policed communities.

A major theme of the book is the role of discretion: While data-driven decision-making tools may promise to replace biased human judgment, in practice they can instead displace human judgment—to earlier and less visible steps in the process, exacerbating the problem they are invoked to solve. Conversely, i was also interested in how Dr. Brayne suggests we shift our perspectives on these tools: She proposes to think of a "big data environment" that shapes our social behavior, and she flips the analogy of data as capital to describe a "cumulative disadvantage" that accrues to those with less access to and control over the data collected on them.

Dr. Brayne's study has legal and scholarly as well as policy implications, and it will be of interest to anyone interested in the societal role of data or in that of police. I hope that it becomes part of the foundation for urgently needed future work at their intersection.

Suggested companion work: Ballad of the Bullet by Forrest Stuart (listen to Stuart's interview with Sarah E. Patterson here)

Sarah Brayne is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at The University of Texas at Austin. Prior to joining the faculty at UT-Austin, she was a Postdoctoral Researcher at Microsoft Research. Dr. Brayne is the founder and director of the Texas Prison Education Initiative, a group of faculty and students who volunteer to teach college classes in prisons throughout Texas.

Cory Brunson is an Assistant Professor at the Laboratory for Systems Medicine at the University of Florida. His research focuses on geometric and topological approaches to the analysis of medical and healthcare data.

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