Illustration By: Shane Tolentino
Illustration By: Shane Tolentino

Op-Ed: Abolish UofC’s Crime Lab

The research center operated by the University of Chicago uses the illusion of scientific objectivity to support the racist violence of the Chicago Police Department

This piece is part of a series that explores the various perspectives around defunding the police.

In the wake of this summer’s rebellion against racist policing, academic institutions across the country have faced scrutiny and activist campaigns surrounding their relationships with police departments. These protests recognize that universities in the neoliberal age are not mere sites of higher learning, but institutions that have profound economic and political influence on city politics. The University of Chicago is a prime example: with an international reputation, a multibillion-dollar endowment larger than the budgets of many cities, and a private police force reputed to be one of the largest in the world, UofC has a significant impact not just on the fiefdom of Hyde Park that it lords over, but on the entire city of Chicago. This makes the university’s collaborative relationship with the Chicago Police Department (CPD) especially egregious.

This relationship is perhaps best exemplified by UofChicago’s Crime Lab, a research center with over one hundred employees run by tenured faculty under the pretense of studying crime and working to provide data-driven policy solutions, particularly to gun violence. In reality, the Crime Lab uses UofC’s clout, money, and veneer of scientific scholarship to work directly with CPD, supporting police work and providing ideological cover for CPD’s racist practices. As we’ll show in more detail below, this reveals the deception at the core of the Crime Lab’s stated research mission. It claims to objectively study the effect of policing in the broad interest of public safety, while in reality working alongside cops as colleagues, research partners, and strategic advisors—all while helping to bolster the public image of a police force widely reviled for its corruption and long record of abuse. Simply put: as long as the Crime Lab continues to operate in its current capacity, UofC is complicit in the racist policing practices of the CPD.

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The Crime Lab advertises itself as leveraging “science in service of cities” or “science to save lives,” claiming that the goal of their work is to use “rigorous research and data to pursue answers, insights, and scalable solutions.” This innocuous sounding, seemingly objective endeavor is also flush with cash and backing from powerful figures in business and politics: it has been given millions of dollars in funding and support from the mayor and former president Obama, and billionaire hedge fund manager and noted Republican super-donor, Ken Griffin (the richest man in Illinois).

The reality of how the Crime Lab operates, however, is far less benevolent than its public relations branding would suggest.

To be precise: the Crime Lab’s research and policy recommendations are steeped in scientific racism, the way the lab operates suffers from lack of transparency and public accountability, and the lab’s stated mission is undermined by its unwavering support for the racist system of policing. From the data Crime Lab chooses to use, to the partnerships that allow them to access that data and the analytical methods they employ, the Crime Lab’s decisions are deeply political, deeply conservative, and deeply committed to the status-quo power dynamics of capitalism and white supremacy.

The UofC Crime Lab, a private research organization, works directly with CPD to carry out police work.

Since 2017, the Crime Lab has operated Strategic Decision Support Centers (SDSC), receiving a $10 million boost from Ken Griffin in 2018, in an ever-increasing number of police districts, starting with Chicago’s 7th and 11th districts (roughly the Englewood and Garfield Park neighborhoods). SDSCs are rooms full of TV and computer screens linked up to huge police data systems, where officers and Crime Lab-hired and -salaried embedded analysts work together to “integrate crime intelligence, data analysis, and technology” as a response to gun violence. The creation of the first two SDSCs was accompanied in these districts by the installation of ShotSpotter auditory sensors to detect gunshots and pod cameras to increase video surveillance.

While Crime Lab proudly claims that the SDSCs are “tailored to meet the unique needs of each community,” and that “community concerns [are] incorporated in the district’s daily planning process,” it is unclear how or if these community members consented to the type of increased surveillance that the SDSCs bring to their neighborhoods.

As of 2018, the 11th and 7th districts have more complaints made against cops than almost all other districts, ranking second and fourth, respectively, according to data published on the Invisible Institute’s Citizens Police Data Project, but this community perspective is not referenced in any of Crime Lab’s work. Recent research demonstrates a high level of inherent bias in these types of surveillance methods, but Crime Lab has yet to show any engagement with these critiques, while continuing to ignore data regarding policing produced by non-police sources.

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The Crime Lab depends on a positive relationship with CPD to carry out their data-focused research model. This relationship shapes their research questions and assumptions across their research portfolio, making it impossible for them to be objective on the topic of policing.

A 2017 letter from its finance director describing the working relationship between lab and CPD personnel to be “close” secured the Crime Lab a $1.1 million noncompetitive contract with CPD, illustrating its tight relationship with the department.

When confronted with criticism for this close collaboration with CPD, Crime Lab leadership often pivot to discussing their evaluations of mentoring and educational programs for youth, implying that their close collaboration with cops is not necessary in this other area of their work. As Crime Lab faculty director Jens Ludwig claimed on a panel at UofC’s Reimagining/Reinventing Police Conference in July, “About two-thirds of our portfolio is not with criminal justice agencies… We wouldn’t want to be an organization that was just working with the criminal justice system.” This response misrepresents the depth of Crime Lab’s reliance on police data and collaboration. In reality, even its research on youth programs or jobs programs like READI Chicago relies on their access to large police datasets to provide crime-related insights. This reliance shapes the research questions they ask and the results they report when studying social service programs. Far from helping matters, the lab’s work studying mentoring and educational work simply underscores concerns about independence and objectivity.

Clearly, using police data in its program-evaluation work provides significant benefits for the Crime Lab: it allows its analysts to report on more outcomes of social programs, increasing their chances of finding a significant result, and it allows them to rely on large and regularly updated datasets, which is important for the kind of rigorous evaluation Crime Lab has staked its reputation on. But reliance on police data requires reliance on the permission of the police to access it—and that permission could be withdrawn by CPD at any time. CPD is not known for taking criticism well. Working closely with the police in order to access their data leaves little room to critique the inherent biases of police data pushing Crime Lab to filter all of their research questions through the logical lens of policing. But Black people are disproportionately targeted by police and therefore overrepresented in police data, which Crime Lab relies on to make analyses and conclusions about crime and who commits it. 

Take, for example, the randomized control trial of a mentoring program called Becoming a Man (BAM), for which the Crime Lab is widely known. In collaboration with Youth Guidance, the nonprofit that designed and runs BAM within Chicago Public Schools (CPS), Crime Lab conducted an evaluation of BAM’s impact on high school-aged participants’ graduation and arrest rates. In a paper reporting the results of the evaluation, the Crime Lab claimed that BAM had a causal impact on participants, increasing their graduation rates and reducing their arrest rates for violent crime, as compared to similar CPS students who were randomly assigned to not to participate in BAM. (Notably, as the New York Times reported when a related paper on the BAM evaluation came out, these lower arrest rates lasted only as long as program participation did.)

The publication of this evaluation had two direct results: the expansion of BAM to more CPS schools and the classification of BAM as a violence prevention program. The expansion was touted as “part of Mayor Emanuel’s new public safety plan to combat the surge in violence in Chicago,” ABC 7 reported. The description of a program consisting of mentoring and group therapy sessions for predominantly Black and brown high schoolers as a violence reduction strategy is a direct result of the use of police department data to evaluate the program’s impact, and define its success. The use of arrest records as a metric imports the logic of policing into the Crime Lab’s research—namely, the assumptions that arrest records are an objective data source, and that violence originates with individuals’ decisions, rather than structural factors.

This work extends the logic of policing into research on youth programming: it blames the individual for social problems, reeks of scientific racism, contributes to the criminalization of young people, and diverts attention from the structural causes of gun violence in Chicago.

The Crime Lab brings no historical or structural context to their study of “crime” and “violence reduction.” Instead, they rely exclusively on behavioral science methods based on economics and statistics, and the implicit assumption of their work is that the individual choices of Black and brown Chicagoans are the fundamental cause of intracommunal violence. This approach strips the concept of crime of any structural context, and blames the victims of oppressive structures for their plight instead of indicting the social system that harms them.

While the Crime Lab presents its work as apolitical and data-driven, it has a profoundly ideological approach to their research topic, in that it investigates crime as a purely behavioral phenomenon using purely quantitative methods. In reality, as numerous academic fields and social movements have demonstrated, crime is socially constructed and systematically weaponized against the oppressed. While any person can cause harm, only the oppressed are consistently and proactively criminalized for it. That is, harm caused by Black, poor, or otherwise marginalized people is often moralized against and criminalized whereas harm caused by capitalists and other privileged groups is sidelined and ignored at best, and encouraged at worst, as is the case with the attention paid to petty robbery over wage theft, a systematized extraction of wealth that affects far more people than any other form of theft.

Given this dynamic, choices of discipline, data sources, and analytical techniques in the study of crime are clearly political ones. Rather than researching the construction of crime and the ways in which the justice system and legal code are designed to target and penalize oppressed groups, the Crime Lab treats the law as fact and the police as unbiased experts, while describing the behavior of marginalized individuals and groups as deviations from an imagined norm of appropriate behavior. Rather than asking, “Why is the rational behavior of particular groups coded as crime?”, the Crime Lab asks, “Why can’t these people stop committing crimes?” It studies crime as if it were a natural phenomenon with no critique of its social construction, which only legitimizes and amplifies the fundamental biases of policing.

The select social programs that the Crime Lab chooses to evaluate reflect the policing-derived politics of their research. Two of their main program evaluation projects—assessing BAM and another program called Choose to Change—are centered on individual social and emotional development and therapy as the basis for providing solutions to social problems. While the types of mentorship provided these programs are not inherently harmful, and therapy to deal with the trauma of institutional racism should be widely available, the metrics the Crime Lab has chosen to measure these programs’ success are deeply problematic. By claiming that young Black men can simply improve their responses to stressful situations with skills that target emotional development, the Crime Lab completely erases any contextual factors that contribute to high rates of gun violence. It implies that it is men and boys’ behavior alone that leads to arrests, rather than the choices of police officers notorious for racist profiling and abuse. It places the blame for interpersonal violence squarely on marginalized individuals, rather than discussing the impact of years of racist policymaking and policing in Chicago.

This narrative has long complemented the logics of policing and neoliberal austerity that have flowed from the mayor’s office, providing mayors Rahm Emanuel and Lori Lightfoot with supposedly evidence-based violence prevention talking points that ignore the violence the city enacts in Black and brown communities, from over-policing to closing schools and mental health centers.

Crime Lab’s peers in the academic community have provided them with ample opportunity to examine the political commitments of their work more deeply. While the most recent example is sociology assistant professor Robert Vargas’s op-ed in the Chicago Maroon, which pinpoints Crime Lab’s need for a robust analysis of systems of racial inequity as opposed to reforming individual behaviors, he is far from the first person to critique the Crime Lab’s approach to social science. In a 2013 statement titled “Combating Gun Violence in Illinois: Evidence-Based Solutions,” thirty-two Chicago academics condemned Crime Lab faculty director Jens Ludwig’s choice to write a policy memo advocating for enhanced sentencing for gun crimes during a heated policy debate in the Illinois legislature, despite the lack of support for such enhanced sentencing policies in the relevant literature.

Crime Lab is not responsive to these kinds of critiques and reacts defensively when confronted, as evidenced by a lengthy and contentious comment exchange by Ludwig in response to a 2013 op-ed that made similar accusations to the statement. Crime Lab leadership seem far more interested in defending their work, remaining relevant, and preserving their power to “show the government how to invest resources” than in having a robust conversation about the best way to reduce gun violence in communities of color. In reality, as so many people who experience both intracommunal and police violence already know, challenging the objectivity of police does not mean denying the reality of harm facing our communities. On the contrary, it means rejecting the myth that systems of white supremacist violence like the police can keep Black and brown people safe from harm. Rather than engage in the ongoing, nuanced conversation about what true public safety could look like in Chicago, the Crime Lab consistently chooses to sweep the violence of policing under the rug.

The truth is, if the Crime Lab were to evaluate policing with a critical eye, they would probably lose access to valuable police datasets, and the funding opportunities that access has brought them.

While CPD has refused to release most documentation related to their work with the Crime Lab (prompting the Lucy Parsons Lab to sue them in a pending lawsuit), the department did release a 2016 non-disclosure agreement (NDA) in response to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. This NDA sets out the conditions under which the Crime Lab can receive, use, and share the results of analyses derived from police data. One particular clause of the NDA illustrates the depth of Crime Lab’s dependence on a positive relationship with CPD. It reads:

Nothing in this agreement creates any obligation on the part of the Chicago Police Department to provide information. With or without cause, CPD retains the right to require the immediate return or destruction of all copies of the information obtained under this Agreement . . . and refuse any future requests for criminal information from the Requestor [emphasis added].

According to this agreement, CPD has the power to terminate their data-sharing relationship immediately, if Crime Lab ever publishes anything that reflects poorly on the department. If the Crime Lab researched critical questions like, “Do surveillance and over-policing have any negative effects on Black communities?” it’s hard to imagine that CPD would willingly sign over their data going forward. This clear conflict of interest exerts institutional pressure on the lab, neutering any ability for it to be independently critical of CPD.

Losing their access to CPD’s data would affect not just the Crime Lab’s policing focused work, but also their ability to use policing derived metrics like arrest records to evaluate social programs. It would also likely lead to a loss of funding from conservative donors like Ken Griffin who have clearly demonstrated their interest in funding police work, and from moderate and liberal foundations, which commonly look to evidence-based and data-driven programs to allocate their funding. Without access to large police datasets, the Crime Lab’s research might be considered less rigorous, and this could undercut grants received across the board, demonstrating how the Crime Lab operates essentially at the whim of the CPD.

Given these contingencies, Crime Lab can’t treat the police department as it might treat other partner organizations. There is always another youth program to evaluate, but there’s only one Chicago Police Department. Instead, Crime Lab treats the existence and massive power of the police department as a foregone conclusion, and continues to benefit from access to CPD’s large, biased datasets, rather than evaluating the racist impact of policing.

The problem isn’t simply that the Crime Lab’s research and programming is conducted in ways that are biased, and that fail to subject the CPD and its practices to scholarly scrutiny. That’s because the Crime Lab doesn’t simply collect information—it also wields significant influence over public policy. In particular, by recommending and participating in expensive reforms to CPD, the Crime Lab plays an outsized role in determining what policing looks like in Chicago. Moreover, when it comes to controversial political questions such as the amount of the city budget that goes to CPD, the Crime Lab’s veneer of objectivity allows it to exert political influence without appearing to do so.

Crime Lab is written into CPD’s 2019 Consent Decree, the result of a Department of Justice report that confirmed the department not only displays racist patterns of policing, but also exhibits “no regard for the sanctity of human life when it comes to people of color.” The consent decree, a toothless contract between the Justice Department and CPD, consists of a long list of unimaginative reforms, some of which Crime Lab is explicitly responsible for helping implement. One of these reforms involves developing implicit bias training, which, under Crime Lab’s influence, means CPD was allowed to purchase expensive force option simulators, or large machines that play videos of potential interactions with civilians and test officers’ use-of-force bias. The force option simulators serve as a tool to recognize bias, which has already been confirmed by the DOJ, not to mention decades of citizen and activist accounts, and evaluate skills picked up in implicit bias workshops. However, there is no scientific consensus on whether these workshops are effective in reducing bias or changing police behavior. In fact, as of 2018, “no RCTs [had] yet been conducted to rigorously evaluate the impact of implicit bias training.”

The perverse brilliance of these types of reformist reforms is that any evidence of harm caused by police is immediately coded as a need or an inadequacy that can only be solved by increased funding and resourcing for police departments. The scam goes something like this: the more racist CPD behaves and the more incompetent they prove themselves, the more money they receive from the city and private funders. The increased spending is justified by appeals to the never-ending need for more training for police officers, and supported by the supposedly neutral reports of the Crime Lab and other pro-police actors who always perceive CPD as lacking resources despite its already outsized scale and budget. When politicians and foundations continue to throw money at CPD to implement the evidence-based practices Crime Lab promotes, Crime Lab receives yet more legitimacy as policing researchers in the world of city politics and philanthropy, despite never publishing rigorous or peer-reviewed evaluations of police work.

This scam also occurs in the midst of a political debate in our society over whether policing ought to exist in its current form, whether police budgets ought to be slashed, and whether it is even legitimate to prescribe policing as a solution to a slew of social problems from homelessness to interpersonal violence. The Crime Lab—flush with private cash—takes firm positions in favor of the status quo on all these questions.

Crime Lab’s political and monetary support depends on their ability to masquerade as an objective research institution, even as they reject any evidence that contradicts their assumptions, and continue to support police violence against Black, brown, and Indigenous communities. But Crime Lab is far from a passive observer of city politics; to the contrary, it has a clear interest in gaining and maintaining political power. The Lab has close ties to Chicago’s past two mayors, and in Lightfoot’s most recent search for a new CPD superintendent, Crime Lab consultant Sean Malinowksi (former chief of detectives for the Los Angeles Police Department) was considered a potential frontrunner for the position.

That a private research institution is so thoroughly enmeshed in the workings of CPD might be cause for concern on its own. That the research institution in question is so dogmatically committed to upholding the legitimacy of policing, even as a worldwide uprising calls for moving toward new ways to address harm, is unacceptable.

The Crime Lab’s unexamined support of CPD during the largest-ever global movement to abolish municipal policing is not just political, it is dogmatic and regressive. The lab has never published a report or recommendation suggesting that CPD’s funding be reduced or diverted to other services. They’ve never even interrogated this question, despite a recent city budget survey whose more than thirty-eight thousand respondents consider CPD the least important social service by far.

The most recent uprisings against police brutality began in May, eliciting no response from the Crime Lab, despite the protests’ clear implications for the lab’s work and very existence. Among waves of public statements from public, private, and nonprofit institutions across the country pledging support (however performative) for the Black Lives Matter movement, promising critical self-analyses and antiracism work, the Crime Lab did not flinch. They released no external comment and marched forward in lockstep, unfazed by world-changing events. Their obstinate refusal to engage with the movement and the research supporting its demands is indicative of deep-seated political ideology and alliances, rather than the academic neutrality they purport.

The Crime Lab’s relationship to CPD is not honest, rigorous, or challenging. Rather it is a mutually beneficial economic exchange, in that each entity benefits from the other’s continued existence. Their close collaboration yields large philanthropic grants to bolster their joint efforts, supplementing the billions of dollars Chicagoans already pay to fund policing every year. The lab’s veneer of nonpartisan, scientific knowledge production is its strongest tool in furthering its pro-police agenda. It’s time to break down that façade and be honest about the nature and role of the Crime Lab and other propaganda disguised as social science research. The Crime Lab operates as a research arm of the police force, and its imagination for social change will only ever extend as far as the interests of CPD.

If we are to end the violence that CPD carries out with impunity in Chicago’s Black and brown communities, the Crime Lab has to go, too. In its place, we demand research and funding that respects the radical imagination of Chicago communities and activists by studying and advancing the development of alternatives to policing.

A version of this piece was originally published in Rampant Magazine. It has been edited for length and clarity.

Editor’s note: In an ongoing effort to balance the public’s need for information against the potential for doing harm to those struggling for justice, the Weekly allowed some authors to use their first name only or an alias due to their current or previous employment at the university and the Crime Lab.

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Amber Jean is a queer Black organizer and member of the Black Abolitionist Network in Chicago.

Aryssa is a born-and-raised Chicago Southsider and member of the Black Abolitionist Network, working to defund CPD.

Samhitha is a queer Nebraskan born of the South Indian diaspora, and a social science researcher interested in studying race, organizing, and education systems with a focus on abolition.

Troy Bolton is a former Urban Labs employee who has become increasingly distressed by the Crime Lab’s dogmatic commitment to pro-policing research methods.

Brian Bean is a member of the Rampant editorial collective and an editor and contributor to the book Palestine: A Socialist Introduction forthcoming from Haymarket Books.

 

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