Strauss Center News

Updates from the Strauss Center and our affiliated distinguished scholars and fellows


Brayne Discusses the Uses of Big Data by Police in the United States

Jun 30, 2020 |

Sarah Brayne, Strauss Center Distinguished Scholar and Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Texas at Austin, recently participated in a podcast on the topic of the uses of big data in policing in the United States. She began with an overview of her expertise and interest in the field, noting that the scope of the U.S. criminal justice system and its associated surveillance is massive, making it unique in a global context. Professor Brayne noted that while much research has been done on the uses of big data in other sectors, little has been done to assess and quantify the use of big data by police. Ironically, there is a paucity of data on police uses of big data—a phenomenon which led to her study design which relied primarily on long-term ethnographic research of the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD.) This model enabled her to engage in an iterative process, tracing and returning to emergent themes throughout the course of her research.

Professor Brayne then fielded a question regarding the gravest misuse of data she observed during her research. She reported that a key issue is that surveillance technology so rapidly outpaces the development of laws crafted to govern it, creating the gray area within which police largely operate. She then delved into a discussion of predictive policing, which she defined as the idea of using historical data to predict who is at higher risk of being involved in future criminal activity. She further commented on the distinction between integrated data and disparate data, noting that there has been a shift in the data which is used by police. Historically, police have maintained their own limited data; now, they are increasingly gaining access to non-police data, such as data from automatic license plate readers used by private companies. This transition fuels two other changes: a shift from query-based systems to alert-based systems, and a shift from  reactive policing to predictive policing. Professor Brayne also spoke to the need to address this research inquiry from a labor perspective, as her research illustrated the powerful role which police unions have in shaping  police uses of technology. Finally, she noted that she observed many instances of the police being called in for an issue which could have been addressed in a much less punitive way—a reality which she argues speaks to the emaciated welfare system of the United States. In light of the current national conversations on the history of police brutality in the U.S., Brayne commented that her research illustrates that while data and technology may help address the problem, it is not the silver bullet: “The question is not how do we incarcerate or police better,” she said, “it’s how do we police less.” Read more in her forthcoming book, Predict and Surveil: Data, Discretion, and the Future of Policing, and listen to the full interview here.

You can also find an op-ed by Brayne on this subject here.