Chapter 2.75: The Wrong Scandal

In my own unpopular opinion, the Tampa Bay Times uncovered the wrong scandal.

Recently, the Times launched a series on Pasco County Sheriff’s efforts at “intelligent policing”, and this week their front-page addition to the series focused on the Sheriff’s efforts to identify teenagers who might become criminals by cross-referencing school data (grades, attendance), police data (past crimes) and social services data (adverse childhood experiences). Those kids whose combination of past experiences raised enough of a concern were flagged as potential criminals in the making for school resource officers, who the department said would be offered mentoring, fishing trips, etc.

The angle the Times took was that the scandal was that a Sheriff would pursue anyone, especially kids, not for committing crimes but for “looking the part.” (I would imagine that people of color everywhere are rolling their eyes at the thought that this sort of “predictive policing” is somehow new.) This approach seems Orwellian, Kafkaesque, straight from the Tom Cruise vehicle Minority Report. Malevolent policing mixed with junk science and intrusive data mining.

Last year, sort of as a hobby, I went in search of how, in a world where so much is knowable about each of us, we might use that knowledge to “disrupt despair”. We live in a world in which our phones know where we want to go before we do, YouTube knows what we want to watch before we do, Facebook knows who we want to connect with before we do. Besides serving that information up to advertisers, I thought, why can’t that data tell us who is at risk of addiction, mental illness, suicide, gang membership, violent extremism, mass shootings? So I started asking around.

I’m not a primary researcher, but I talked to people who were experts in all of those fields, and the common threads of what they told me were this: almost all of those things are paths that start from an absence of purpose and pro-social connection. What surprised me was that the biggest indicator they said of risk of any of these paths of despair was a high score on the adverse childhood experience scale; regardless of how old you are now, what happened to you as a child remains a powerful predictor of whether you are likely to fall into despair.

The Pasco County Sheriff is trying to stem one of those paths of despair – crime – using measures that appear to correlate to risk of despair. Their stated response – mentoring and positive attention – seems innocent, if not necessarily sufficient. The intrusion of privacy is a scandal, but it’s not the real scandal.

The real scandal, as I see it, is not that that there is a sheriff in Pasco County who is malevolently spying on his constituents. The real scandal is that we as a society know which kids are at risk of bad things, but the only institution we give the resources and power to intervene is a law enforcement agency.

It says something significant and scandalous that a sheriff can invest the money and staffing to do this kind of work, but local service agencies can’t hire enough case workers to keep tabs on those who are already despairing, much less work upstream. There are catalogs of programs with track records of success in supplying people at risk with what they need to avoid despair, but we as a society don’t elect people willing to spend the money to print the catalogs, much less the despair-saving interventions.

The problem with that scandal is that we are the culprits, not some scapegoat in Pasco County. Because we are saying, by how our elected leaders budget our tax money, that we will pay for people to protect us from our neighbor if their lives go off the rails, but we won’t pay for people to help our neighbor get back on track, much less consider that our role as neighbor enjoins us to help our neighbor ourselves.

In Pope Francis’ encyclical Fratelli Tutti, he reflects at length on the Parable of the Good Samaritan, in which a robbery victim is ignored by two upright men who want to avoid trouble and therefore won’t help, before a despised outcast is willing to intervene. We are challenged, by Jesus in telling the parable as by Francis in Fratelli Tutti, to assess which character we are in this parable. When our response to the potential trouble of a neighbor is to seek proactive police protection rather than seek help for the wounded, we are surely the priest and Levite rather than the Samaritan.

That’s the real scandal that the Pasco County story tells us. We have seen the robbery victim bleeding in the ditch, and our response is to call the cops rather than lend a hand. Maybe this Advent we might reflect on how willing we really are to enter into the chaos of another’s life, or let another enter into the chaos of our life. If we each did a little more of that Good Samaritan work, maybe we wouldn’t first think of our neighbor as someone from whom we need police protection, and maybe we wouldn’t need an algorithm to tell us who was bleeding in a ditch on the path to despair.

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