Racism Rears its Ugly Head in Police’s Untested Tech

Oct 12, 2022

OTTAWA—Now is the time to re-read 1984 and rewatch Minority Report and Demolition Man, because this is where we are right now.

On Oct. 4, Edmonton Police tweeted (now-deleted) out a suspect for a sexual assault that occurred in the city in March of 2019, which they called “horrific”—so much so the victim nearly died. There were no witnesses, no CCTV, and no leads. Suffice it to say they were stumped. In their own words, the Edmonton police had little information: “the suspect was Black and about 5’4 with a black toque, pants, and sweater or hoodie and that he had an accent.” In order to save the case, the police turned to a new technique called DNA phenotyping to prepare a sketch of the suspect, after which it was released to the public. (Apparently, they had the suspect’s DNA on file.) The sketch was released on Twitter to much well-deserved criticism. The Edmonton Police had to issue a long apology for the problems with this approach that they should’ve known. Had they done the proper reckoning after George Floyd, they wouldn’t be in this mess in the first place.

We are in the age of artificial intelligence being used in policing, and racial disparities in policing will become a lot more pronounced and prevalent with applications of these technologies. We have a bill that’s circulating around Parliament—Bill C-27—that will exempt what is racial profiling at scale.

DNA phenotyping is predicting a human’s appearance from forensic samples, which would contain someone’s DNA. It is used by police to determine suspects and find missing persons. It is also known as molecular identification. The Edmonton Police used a company called Parabon Nanolabs, which has had its own controversies. But the issue is whether or not this application of science is actually useful, or even ethical. Yves Moreau, a biologist at Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium, remarked in Nature, that DNA forensic technology is seen as a silver bullet (much like tax cuts), a panacea that will solve all cases and cure all ills. “But law-enforcement agencies are using databases and techniques not designed for solving crimes or generating leads, he says. ‘It’s like a knife—people underestimate just how sharp they can be.’”

And that’s not all.

Parabon’s Snapshot DNA Analysis is selling the science beyond its acceptable application and police services are eating it up without government oversight. Manfred Kayser of Erasmus University Medical Center in Rotterdam, Netherlands, developed a program that predicts eye colour from DNA samples. While individual facial characteristics can be predicted, he insists there is no evidence that a whole face can be reconstructed just using DNA. As Nature pointed out, “Unlike Parabon, Kayser does not attempt to weave together different features to try to recreate a person’s face. Instead, he uses the individual traits (say, auburn hair and hazel eyes) as law-enforcement leads. He finds Snapshot to be problematic because the technology hasn’t been evaluated in the peer-reviewed literature.” In other words, Parabon’s claims have not been verified through a rigorous peer-review process. Kayser said, “It’s pretty bad that they don’t publish how they do this and how they validated this.”

The Edmonton Police used a technology that is unregulated and unverified with the potential to put a target on the back of every young Black male in Alberta. It’s frightening and just goes to show that if there is no one in the decision-making space to challenge the use of these technologies, our governments will push their applications, without rigorous oversight and reporting, while using taxpayer dollars to do it. The potential for targeting various racialized groups, women, trans, and non-binary people is limitless. As Nature points out, “these technologies are already being used to target and discriminate against people from minority groups.”

The Parabon Snapshot result provided for the Edmonton Police sketch was biased and improbable. The picture provided of the suspect was that of a Black boy that looked no older than 15 years old, but the depiction was “what the POI may have looked like at 25 years old.” This is racial bias, it’s racism. As I wrote on Twitter: “The adultification of Black children feeds into the assumed criminality of Black boys as they are cast as deviants and aggressive thereby needing to be severely restrained. It’s harm to Black children.” This is further emphasized by the state placing School Resource Officers (SRO) in schools with a high proportion of racialized students, thereby creating the entryway for the school-to-prison pipeline. In other words, the picture released played into the racial bias of the criminalization of Black boys.

The sketch, while it is supposed to resemble someone of East African origin, looks almost exactly like Lucas Sinclair (Caleb McLaughlin) from Stranger Things.

In the Edmonton Police’s apology, the chief operating officer for the Community Safety and Well-being Bureau of EPS who spearheaded this chicanery admitted: “The potential that a visual profile can provide far too broad a characterization from within a racialized community and in this case, Edmonton’s Black community, was not something I adequately considered.” And he is a Black man. Just goes to show, diversity solves nothing.

Erica Ifill is a co-host of the Bad+Bitchy podcast.