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Police departments are turning to AI to sift through millions of hours of unreviewed body-cam footage

Over the last decade, police departments across the U.S. have spent millions of dollars equipping their officers with body-worn cameras that record what happens as they go about their work. Everything from traffic stops to welfare checks to responses to active shooters is now documented on video. The cameras were pitched by national and local law enforcement authorities as a tool for building public trust between police and their communities in the wake of police killings of civilians like Michael Brown, an 18 year old black teenager killed in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014.

At Washington State University’s Complex Social Interactions Lab, researchers use a combination of human reviewers and AI to analyze video. The lab began its work seven years ago, teaming up with the Pullman, Washington, police department. The lab has a team of around 50 reviewers — drawn from the university’s own students — who comb through video to track things like the race of officers and civilians, the time of day, and whether officers gave explanations for their actions, such as why they pulled someone over. The reviewers note when an officer uses force, if officers and civilians interrupt each other and whether an officer explains that the interaction is being recorded. They also note how agitated officers and civilians are at each point in the video.

Machine learning algorithms are then used to look for correlations between these features and the outcome of each police encounter.

“From that labeled data, you’re able to apply machine learning so that we’re able to get to predictions so we can start to isolate and figure out, well, when these kind of confluences of events happen, this actually minimizes the likelihood of this outcome,” said David Makin, who heads the lab and also serves on the Pullman Police Advisory Committee.

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Washington is closing its first prison in 10 years. Are others next?

For the first time in more than a decade, Washington state is closing a prison. The Larch Corrections Center in Yacolt, Clark County will shut its gates for the last time next week. The state’s Department of Corrections says the population of the 240-bed minimum security prison is now down to about 60 people, all of whom will be relocated by Monday, Oct. 2.

The reason for the closure is a matter of falling demand — there are simply fewer people behind bars in the state. The department says these trends will likely accelerate in the coming years, potentially leading to more prison closures.

Mary Stohr

“We’ve had serious decarceration in this country now for the last 15 years, not in every state, but in most states and the federal government,” said Mary Stohr, a former corrections employee at Larch and current professor of criminal justice and criminology at Washington State University.

Stohr said there are a myriad of reasons behind the closures — prisons are expensive, violent crime is down per capita, legalization and decriminalization of drugs have led to fewer arrests for nonviolent offenses, and a decrease in the percentage of young people may also be behind the dip.

In the short term, Stohr acknowledges there will be pain points as prisons close.

“There’s some unforeseen, unthought of effects in terms of economies and relationships, that will be harmed by closing this prison,” Stohr said. “But it’s also true that in our state, as in many states, we’ve been incarcerating far too many nonviolent people for many years, for minor drug offenses for all kinds of crimes where they could have been in the community.”

Read more and listen to the full conversation:
Soundside, KUOW (starts 10 minutes into the audio recording)

WSU Pullman student receives governor’s award for civic engagement

McNair scholar Areli Orozco, a psychology and criminal justice double-major, is the recipient of a Governor’s Student Civic Leadership award from the Washington Campus Coalition for the Public Good (WCC). The award highlights student leaders for their work in civic engagement, community leadership, and social entrepreneurship.

“I was kind of shocked,” said Orozco, a first-year student at Washington State University who researches anxiety among first generation students that are people of color. “I thought the recognition was cool, but at the same time, I feel like there are other people who do a lot more.”

Ben Calabretta, director of the Center for Civic Engagement, says a large part of the reason why he nomintated Orozco for the award is her tendency to uplift and direct the spotlight onto those around her.

“Areli stood out because she has demonstrated her commitment to creating positive change through her engagement in the community and in the connections she’s made with other students,” he said. “She has truly made an impact on others during her time at WSU.”

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WSU Insider
Big Country News

Portland’s broken window epidemic: Who’s behind the vandalism and what is going to stop it?

Every 42 minutes there is a report of vandalism in Portland — often involving broken windows. Some storefronts have been hit repeatedly.

There were more reports of broken windows and vandalism in Portland last year than during the violent protests of 2020.

Laurie Drapela.

“It is a complex problem that really requires a complex solution,” said Laurie Drapela, a criminal justice professor at Washington State University Vancouver. Drapela explained that because there are fewer people living and working in downtown Portland, there aren’t as many eyes and ears around to help prevent crime.

 “You have a lot of office complex space now where people are working from home, so they’re not downtown taking lunch breaks, going to and from the MAX or TriMet,” said Drapela. “They provide natural surveillance. What we call in the field — guardianship.”

Drapela says the community should focus on bringing people back downtown, especially on nights and weekends — when much of the vandalism occurs.

Increased police presence and social services will help, Drapela explained — but at the end of the day, it’s less likely that criminals will break windows if people are around and watching.

“You could see some turnaround here that is not short lived. It is more into the future and gets us back to the downtown Portland we know and love,” said Drapela.

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Research: The operationalization of bodycam data

Washington State University researchers are working with police departments to objectively review videos to benchmark officer performance and inform training

David Makin.

An agency’s body-worn camera video contains multiple data points that can be operationalized to benchmark officer performance and inform training. Tapping into that wealth of knowledge is the mission of David A. Makin, Ph.D., an associate professor in criminal justice and criminology at Washington State University and director of WSU’s Complex Social Interactions Lab.

Through data analytics and machine learning, Makin and his team code and catalog key variables in bodycam videos associated with a range of outcomes as specified by the agencies participating in the research. Importantly, the work undertaken in the lab captures situational and environmental factors such as the geographic location, ambient noise level, time of day, and the presence and actions taken by bystanders to better contextualize and therefore better understand interactions between police and the community.

Recently, WSU’s research team passed a significant milestone of 20,000 hours (nearly 120 weeks’ worth) of analyzed footage. I sat down with Dr. Makin to discuss how this research can contribute toward improving police-community interactions and create data-driven solutions for enhancing situational awareness, officer safety and de-escalation.

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