By Matt Stroud | May 24, 2021, 10:00am EDT
Photography by Sebastián Hidalgo
Robert McDaniel’s troubles began with a knock on the door. It was a weekday in mid-2013, as he made lunch in the crowded three-bedroom house where he lives with his grandmother and several of his adult siblings.
When he went to answer the door, McDaniel discovered not one person, but a cohort of visitors: two police officers in uniform, a neighbor working with the police, and a muscular guy in shorts and a T-shirt sporting short, graying hair.
Police officers weren’t a new sight for McDaniel. They often drove down his tree-lined street in the Austin neighborhood of Chicago making stops and arrests. Out of the 775 homicides tracked by the Chicago Sun-Times in 2020, 72 of them happened in Austin. That’s almost 10 percent of the city’s murder rate, in a region that takes up just 3 percent of its total area. The City of Chicago puts out a “heat map” of where gun crimes occur, with areas of moderate shooting numbers shaded in blue or green. Red splotches represent large numbers — and hottest concentrations — of shootings. On the map, Austin is the color of a fire engine.
Still, this visit from authorities caught McDaniel off guard: at that point in time, he had nothing remotely violent on his criminal record — just arrests for marijuana-related offenses and street gambling. And despite two officers showing up at his front door with the cohort, neither of them, nor anyone else in the cohort, accused McDaniel of breaking the law. They were not there to arrest him. No one was there to investigate a crime. They just wanted to talk.
“I had no idea why these cops were here,” McDaniel says, recounting it to me years later. “I didn’t do shit to bring them here.”
He invited them into this home. And when he did, they told McDaniel something he could hardly believe: an algorithm built by the Chicago Police Department predicted — based on his proximity to and relationships with known shooters and shooting casualties — that McDaniel would be involved in a shooting. That he would be a “party to violence,” but it wasn’t clear what side of the barrel he might be on. He could be the shooter, he might get shot. They didn’t know. But the data said he was at risk either way.
McDaniel was both a potential victim and a potential perpetrator, and the visitors on his porch treated him as such. A social worker told him that he could help him if he was interested in finding assistance to secure a job, for example, or mental health services. And police were there, too, with a warning: from here on out, the Chicago Police Department would be watching him. The algorithm indicated Robert McDaniel was more likely than 99.9 percent of Chicago’s population to either be shot or to have a shooting connected to him. That made him dangerous, and top brass at the Chicago PD knew it. So McDaniel had better be on his best behavior.
The idea that a series of calculations could predict that he would soon shoot someone, or be shot, seemed outlandish. At the time, McDaniel didn’t know how to take the news.
But the visit set a series of gears in motion. This Kafka-esque policing nightmare — a circumstance in which police identified a man to be surveilled based on a purely theoretical danger — would seem to cause the thing it predicted, in a deranged feat of self-fulfilling prophecy.
Developed in the Civil War era by developer Henry Austin, “Austinville,” as it was then called, quickly grew into one of Chicago’s most prominent suburbs. With easy access to the city’s newly developing suburban rail service, thousands of immigrants — Germans and Scandinavians and then Irish and Italian families — flocked to the neighborhood. By the early 1920s, Austin was a residential haven for upwardly mobile families, with structures designed by architects such as Frederick Schock and Frank Lloyd Wright. The densely populated suburb was defined by an easily navigable grid, tree-lined streets, parks, and narrow lots for single-family homes.
Like many neighborhoods in the expanding Chicago metro area, however, the city’s postwar redlining policies, combined with expressway construction in the 1960s, forced a dramatic shift: white immigrant families fled for better-connected neighborhoods, and institutional segregation policies served to push African American families into Austin. By the 1990s, the neighborhood’s residents were more than 90 percent Black, and many of its blocks were stunted by abandonment and blight.
McDaniel’s block represents much of that history. The lots are narrow, and the population is almost exclusively Black and Hispanic; there are no obvious abandoned properties on North Mason, the street where McDaniel lives, but there’s abandonment littered throughout the streets running parallel to it. Just about every house on McDaniel’s block features a front porch where residents spend much of their time, particularly in the warm summer months. These give the neighborhood a sense of cohesion and lively social dynamic, but it helps to complicate matters when police make arrests or show up at someone’s home. It’s easy to keep an eye on neighbors, and according to McDaniel, people are often in each others’ businesses.
All of which is to say that McDaniel’s neighbors saw the cohort of officials arrive. They saw police walk to his porch, and they noticed that, when they departed, McDaniel didn’t leave along with them in handcuffs.
His family members and people in the neighborhood asked about the visit. Had McDaniel come to some sort of agreement with the police?
“They wanna know why all these muthafuckin’ cops are here talkin’ with me,” McDaniel says. “And you know what? So do I.”
A reporter for the Chicago Tribune later contacted McDaniel regarding a story about the “heat list” — an unofficial moniker that cops gave to the register of individuals like McDaniel who had been identified by the police algorithm as potential shooters or shooting victims. McDaniel saw it as an opportunity to clear his name, to tell the world that he wasn’t working with the police, and, further, that he wasn’t doing anything that should attract police attention — except for being Black.
McDaniel had no violent history — no reason, as far as he was concerned, that any police officer should randomly show up to his house and declare him a threat.
Born in 1991, McDaniel is one of 12 siblings. Most of them — and a slew of aunts and uncles and cousins — live nearby. Growing up, McDaniel says, he wasn’t much of a student and was kicked out of multiple public high schools for everything from fighting with other classmates to disagreeing with authority figures. He never formally graduated from high school but has since earned his GED.
He’s lived in his grandmother’s Austin home since he was six, and while he’s said he has the ambition to move, he’s never had the wherewithal to do so. By his own admission, he’s only held a couple of jobs, working at a bodega for a friend for a few years and then at a candy factory. Otherwise, he’s scraped by however he can.
Though he’s never been sentenced to jail time, McDaniel has previously been arrested for dealing weed and shooting dice on the street. He says he stays out of violent gang activity that might get him killed because he has a nine-year-old daughter with his ex-wife, with whom he’s had an on-and-off relationship since they met in high school. With that kind of background, why, he asks, would the police put him on a list of the city’s most potentially dangerous citizens?
“I have no background, so what would even give you probable cause to watch me?” McDaniel told the Tribune in the summer of 2013. “And if you’re watching me, then you can obviously see I’m not doing anything.”
Chicago’s heat list is an inflection point in more than three decades of increased reliance on data in policing.
In the early 1990s, Bill Bratton and Jack Maple — chief of the New York City Transit Police and his lieutenant, respectively — began experimenting with early iterations of a data-based policing program.
The system they used wasn’t so much a “technology” as it was a tidier way to look at crime reports. Innovation by way of organization, bureaucracy. Bratton and Maple would take a horde of crime statistics and plot the locations of each incident with dots — with colored pencils and crayons — on a big paper map they’d affix to a precinct wall.
Then, they’d strategize about how to reduce crimes in those specific areas: send more patrol units, maybe, or undercover cops to bait muggers. This new way of organizing crime data helped to increase arrests in their jurisdictions. Bratton, who had earned the nickname “Lord Dots” for his similar efforts in the Boston Police Department, eventually became New York City Police Department’s commissioner. Maple became New York City’s deputy police commissioner for crime control strategies and would eventually be known as “the architect” of the program that resulted from this new way of organizing crime data: CompStat.
In the 30 years since then, computers have taken over much of the work of gathering and plotting datasets. They’ve also allowed police data analysts to attempt to not just identify where crime already happened, but, using artificial intelligence and pattern modeling, to identify where crimes are likely to happen in the future.
By the time McDaniel received his visit from the cohort, CompStat-style programs had been rolled out in police departments all over the country, and companies like PredPol had entered the game, helping officers use data to design patrolling strategies.
The emphasis of all these programs was geography: if police saw a spate of muggings in and around Chicago’s picturesque Humboldt Park recreation area one day, for example, the data might show that the residential Fifth City district, southeast of the park, might be next. So commanders might send patrol units there.
Policing leaders around the world have heralded place-based forecasting as essential to more efficient patrols. But there are all sorts of terrifying implications in this kind of geographic forecasting for police.
Forecasting isn’t magic; it’s an educated guess about what might happen based on things that have already occurred. The data feeding forecasting software for police are typically built around police stops and arrests. That might sound straightforward and unbiased, but consider that US Department of Justice data show that African Americans are more than twice as likely to be arrested than white people. And if you’re Black, your likelihood of being stopped by a police officer can be nearly four times higher than if you’re white, depending on which city you live in, according to the Stanford Open Policing Project.
Building a forecasting model around data like these can run the risk of stigmatizing entire populations based on discriminatory data; a 2017 study from the Journal of Statistics and Public Policy found that arrests doubled in a quadrant of Los Angeles where its police department tested forecasting software. Another problem — exacerbated when forecasting programs do not disclose their sources of data — is that of “dirty data” being mixed with more straightforward crime reports: a 2019 study out of New York University’s AI Now Institute identified jurisdictions where inaccurate or falsified records were directly fed into the data. Chicago’s one of them.
Which is all to say that forecasting can put entire populations at risk of over-policing — which has led to countless unnecessary police killings for relatively insignificant infractions. (Think George Floyd. And Michael Brown. Twelve-year-old Tamir Rice. Sandra Bland, Philando Castile, Walter Scott. Thirteen-year-old Adam Toledo, this year, in Chicago. Alton Sterling, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery. The list goes on.)
After years of shocking homicide numbers in the ’90s, CPD began its first CompStat program in 2003. The following year, Chicago had fewer than 500 homicides for the first time in nearly four decades. Whether or not that decrease had anything to do with CompStat, CPD received attention as a police force that saw real results after instituting a data program to focus patrols on crime hotspots. In 2006, CPD began enlisting community members to assist at-risk youth. So there was momentum within the city to experiment with data and community programs to fight crime.
In the late 2000s, Chicago initiated a program that would take a step beyond geographic forecasting. The emphasis of this new program, which got its start in 2009, was people. Specific people. It wasn’t a neighborhood crime forecast. It was “predictive policing” in its purest form.
At the time, only one other police department in the country had attempted to use people-based predictive technology — the Los Angeles Police Department, which went with a more straightforward “chronic offenders” list — part of a broader data-based LAPD program called “Operation LASER.” It would identify people with seemingly habitual contacts with the LAPD, with the goal of finding “a list of offenders,” according to a review of the program sponsored by the Bureau of Justice Assistance, for LAPD officers “to proactively seek out.”
The phrase “predictive policing” gets thrown around a lot, but its original concept wasn’t about putting dots on maps or trying to forecast where to send patrol cars. It was about figuring out who would commit a crime before they actually did. It was “pre-crime,” envisioned by Philip K. Dick in his 1956 science fiction novella The Minority Report. It focused on individuals, not places. And it was science fiction. Not to mention that the entire premise of the story is that such a predictive system would result in “a vast, impersonal engine of destruction grinding men and women to their doom.”
Regardless, people on the forefront of law enforcement technology eventually began to see pre-crime, person-based predictive policing as a real-world possibility.
There are horrifying implications here: identifying and arresting specific people who might commit crimes goes against the very principle upon which the US criminal justice system is based. If individuals are arrested under suspicion of potentially committing a crime, there is no “innocent until proven guilty”; there’s a supposition of guilt. Plus, there’s just so much uncertainty in the technology: What if the data is wrong?
Unbeknownst to McDaniel, he was a sort of guinea pig, one of the first individuals to be put on Chicago’s “heat list.”
The Chicago Tribune published its story on August 21st, 2013, and it gave a broad picture of the heat list and its goal to use the city’s extensive data collection to intervene in the lives of people like McDaniel. It’s not clear if anyone in his neighborhood read the article, which explained his confusion about why he’d been placed on the list. But it raised more questions than it answered about the heat list and how individuals like McDaniel found their way onto it.
The article described a list created “with the help of mathematical analysis,” but it didn’t go into detail about how that analysis was done. The fact that McDaniel, a Black man with no significant criminal history to speak of (certainly no felonies), was one of the principal targets of the analysis raised even more questions. Who else was on the list? What factors was CPD using to create its analysis? And what was CPD doing to ensure that the list wasn’t merely targeting people because of the color of their skin or where they happened to live?
In 2014, I spoke with CPD officials about the program for an article for The Verge. What exactly did it mean to have cops watching individuals who may or may not pose a threat? Which cops were doing the watching?
A commander in the police force eventually told me, “If you end up on that list, there’s a reason you’re there,” implying that people on the list are criminals rather than “parties to violence.”
The program was a black box. Mocking the opaqueness of the operation and its seeming ineffectiveness, Second City Cop, a local blog written by anonymous Chicago police officers, began referring to the heat list and its team as the “crystal ball unit.”
McDaniel says that as soon as he was placed on the list, he became a target of constant surveillance by CPD.
Officers did exactly what they promised, he says, and more. Police started hanging around the bodega where he worked, looking for opportunities to go after him, often questioning his managers about his activities and whereabouts.
Everywhere he looked, it seemed, there was a police officer waiting for him, ready to search, to seize. One day, CPD officers stopped by the bodega — without a warrant, McDaniel says, and CPD declined to comment on his specific case. According to McDaniel, police demanded that he open a safe behind the counter. McDaniel didn’t have the combination to the safe, but when the proprietor arrived, he agreed to open it. Inside, the officers found a small amount of marijuana and rolling papers. They charged McDaniel with possession. McDaniel declined to fight it, he says, because he didn’t have the money to do so. Through a spokesperson, CPD declined to comment on McDaniel’s case.
“They lookin’ for shooters and instead all they find is a little bit of weed,” he recalls to me, still incredulous.
The CPD attention didn’t only serve to unnerve McDaniel and cost him fines related to the marijuana charge. Suddenly, a lot of his friends and neighbors didn’t trust him.
It’s no secret that “snitching” is condemned in communities with significant portions of their populations behind bars. But McDaniel wasn’t snitching. He wasn’t even being asked to do so in the first place; if the cohort who showed up on his front door was to be believed, they were merely asking him to accept help and keep out of trouble. That’s not what it looked like to anyone in the neighborhood, McDaniel says, as cops seemed to follow him wherever he went.
McDaniel found himself in a kind of worst-case scenario: police were distrustful of him because of the heat list, while his neighbors and friends were distrustful of him because they assumed he was cooperating with law enforcement — no amount of assurances would convince them he wasn’t.
McDaniel became isolated. Friends stopped talking to him.
Meanwhile, interest in the heat list continued outside Chicago.
When the filmmakers behind the 2017 German documentary Pre-Crime contacted him about being in their film, he agreed, thinking it might help him to clear his name within his own community.
The filmmakers recorded in front of and inside McDaniel’s home as well as in the bodega where he worked at the time. The sight of cameras and filming equipment on location in Austin was unusual, to say the least. Rather than help clear his name, the cameras only served to rekindle concern in the neighborhood about whether he maintained a relationship with the Chicago Police Department.
Sometime after filming — McDaniel doesn’t remember the date or have documentation to prove it — he remembers being approached by a group of men from his neighborhood, people he knew. They asked, point-blank, whether he was a snitch.
McDaniel wasn’t shy about telling people he’d appeared on a list of likely violent offenders. But he insisted that being on the list didn’t mean he had any involvement with the Chicago Police Department. “I tell them the truth,” he recounts. “I’m just trying to get my name off this heat list shit, I don’t even know how I got on there.” After that, McDaniel says, he and the group parted ways.
Take a step back and try to imagine the complexity of what McDaniel was trying to explain in that moment: the reason for cops showing up at his door was a stuff-of-science-fiction computer algorithm that had identified McDaniel, based on a collection of data sources that no civilian could gain access to, as a shooter or a victim of a shooting in some future circumstance that might or might not play out.
One could imagine that some audiences hearing this explanation might think McDaniel was out of his mind — a conspiracy theorist raving about the vast surveillance state. But in a historically overpoliced neighborhood in Chicago, the implications could be much more dire. How, then, did he know so much about what the police were doing? The more McDaniel explained, the more it sounded like he was an informant. But that’s all he could do to plead with his community: keep explaining.
A day or two later, while hanging out at a neighbor’s house a block away from his home, McDaniel says, he got a call from someone who, he says, “was supposed to’ve been a friend.” The friend said they were outside McDaniel’s house and wanted him to come outside and explain it again — what the story was, how he’d gotten on the heat list, why people from CPD had visited his home, why he was now being documented by filmmakers.
McDaniel agreed — but as he headed back to his house, a car pulled up. A man fired multiple shots from inside the car. One hit McDaniel in the knee, and his leg gave out.
The car pulled away. Hearing the shots, the neighbor whose house McDaniel had just left called an ambulance.
The Chicago Police Department only releases shooting reports if the requester can identify a specific location and date where the shooting occurred. McDaniel says he doesn’t remember the exact date of his shooting, and The Verge has not been able to substantiate the details of his shooting with police documentation. Through a spokesperson, CPD declined to comment on McDaniel’s case.
McDaniel points to the wounds on his body as testimony of the event. His uncle, Lonnie Newman, indicates that McDaniel is a reliable narrator. “This is a good man,” he tells me. “You can trust what he says.”
At the hospital after he was shot, McDaniel recalls speaking with someone connected to the shooter. Incredulous, he asks, “What the fuck y’all just shoot me for?”
The response, according to McDaniel: “A lotta muthafuckas don’t believe your story.”
Later, McDaniel tells me it represented the kind of situation that he felt he couldn’t escape.
“I’ve lived here 25 years. I know people, their families, their friends,” he says. “One year, I’m at your house, your momma’s cooking for me, we’re on the couch chilling, playing games, smoking weed. The next, you’ve got a gun pointed at me.”
In McDaniel’s view, the heat list caused the harm its creators hoped to avoid: it predicted a shooting that wouldn’t have happened if it hadn’t predicted the shooting.
As the heat list continued to operate, researchers tore it to shreds. A 2016 paper published in the Journal of Experimental Criminology came to some troubling conclusions about the list that had, by then, been rebranded as the “Strategic Subject List,” or SSL. Among them: “The individuals on the SSL were considered to be ‘persons of interest’ to the CPD,” meaning that McDaniel’s description of being routinely targeted for surveillance and searches matched what researchers discovered. “Overall,” the report goes on, “there was no practical direction about what to do with individuals on the SSL, little executive or administrative attention paid to the pilot, and little to no follow-up with district commanders.”
The heat list wasn’t particularly predictive, it turned out. It wasn’t high-tech. Cops would just use the list as a way to target people.
There was another problem, too. Not long after RAND researchers performed their heat list analysis, Chicago was in an uproar. The October 2014 shooting of Laquan McDonald by CPD officer Jason Van Dyke enraged huge swaths of the city’s population. When the CPD released a video of the shooting — after more than a year of delays by public officials — all bets were off: months of protests followed. Shootings spiked in Chicago by 46 percent from 2015 to 2016, and a remarkable 85 percent from 2013 to 3,512.
Anthony Guglielmi, who served as the department’s public information officer at the time, says the McDonald shooting distracted the CPD from the heat list.
“Laquan McDonald happened and the city just turned into a warzone,” Guglielmi tells me. “And so the focus of the department was less on, Let’s see what this experimental program can do, and more on, just like, Jesus Christ, how do we get people to stop shooting each other?”
That practical consideration only added to the deep condemnation that the heat list attracted from all over the country. Reporters and community organizations criticized the lack of transparency about which factors placed an individual on the list. Researchers questioned its efficacy. And civil rights groups wondered how damaging someone’s inclusion on the list might be to their record.
In a 2018 testimony to the Illinois Senate Committee on Public Health, Rachel Murphy, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, pointed out that someone’s designation on the heat list was not limited to CPD officers and officials. “It is also used by immigration officials in considering whether to grant a person’s application for legal status and by prosecutors in considering whether to enhance charges.” A spot on the heat list could potentially get people deported — or sent to prison for inappropriately long sentences.
For the CPD, the heat list simply wasn’t worth all the negative attention it attracted.
Los Angeles officials came to a similar conclusion.
A report from the Police Commission in Los Angeles — a civilian panel charged with overseeing the LAPD — criticized the department’s person-based predictive policing program, saying that officers used inconsistent data to label people as “chronic offenders.” That only added to the scrutiny that LAPD’s Operation LASER attracted.
LAPD brass ended its person-based predictive policing program in April 2020. Though the CPD still uses place-based predictive policing algorithms, Chicago’s heat list program ended in 2019.
In August 2020, McDaniel found himself on the wrong side of a gun again.
Near midnight on August 13th last year, he walked into an alleyway a few hundred feet from where shooters nearly killed him years before. It was quiet, a half-block from his home. Checking text messages on his phone, he looked up to see himself ambushed. Two shooters in black, an attempted hit. A surveillance video from that night shows darkened figures walking through an alley, bursts of gunfire. A figure — McDaniel — falls into a brick wall, then slides down to the ground.
“They did it again,” McDaniel tells me.
McDaniel says he knows who did it, but he won’t go to the police. He says he’s the target of violence because people in his neighborhood believe he’s a snitch. But McDaniel refuses to report the shooting to police because he says he’s not a snitch — and never would be.
The irony here is breathtaking and entirely foreseeable. The heat list may have been designed to reduce violence, but for McDaniel, he says it brought violence directly to him. It got him all the negative ramifications of being an informant — a snitch — with none of the benefits.
He can’t trust anyone. Nowhere’s safe. Everyone’s a potential threat.
“I got this target on my back,” he says.
And there’s no way to remove it.
Last summer, on a searingly hot, humid afternoon, I visited McDaniel at his home in Chicago’s Austin neighborhood. As part of my reporting, I also got in touch with a member of the cohort that had visited McDaniel in 2013 — the officials who, in McDaniel’s eyes, precipitated everything that followed.
Charles Perry, who stood on McDaniel’s porch all those years ago as a former prisoner who’d reemerged successfully into the general public, now devotes a significant chunk of his time — often without pay — to meeting up with violent and formerly violent offenders to discuss options for getting off the street, getting mental health and drug abuse help, and securing more standard forms of employment. Perry knows the peril these individuals face: when he was 23 years old, he was arrested and sentenced to 25 years in a federal penitentiary for conspiracy to distribute cocaine.
Perry is now the director of community organizing at Westside Health Authority, which specializes in getting people out of violent circumstances. The 55-year-old is also an assistant football coach at a local high school. When I asked if he wanted to meet McDaniel again, he gladly agreed.
The meeting between McDaniel and Perry was, in other words, a kind of reunion.
When they saw each other again, McDaniel didn’t recognize Perry. So Perry reintroduced himself, described his decades behind bars, and suggested that McDaniel might do well to let Perry help him find work or some kind of training in the trades.
But McDaniel was having none of it.
To McDaniel, the heat list and everything associated with it, including the offers of help, represent the system that’s placed him in danger. And more broadly, it’s done nothing to lift him out of his circumstances, only worsen them. Perry presented McDaniel with a partial hypothetical about the risk and reward of working within the system, rather than abstaining from it.
“Let’s say you have $50,000 sitting there that, if you go for it, you might lose your life or end up behind bars,” he said. “Or I come to you with an opportunity to get a job to make $12 per hour.”
“I don’t want it,” McDaniel said — he’d take the chance to make $50,000.
“Okay, that’s your choice,” Perry said.
“No, it’s not my choice,” McDaniel said. “Look at the reality of it: I got all these problems now. If I’m gonna be evicted from my home, if I got kids that don’t eat, if I got a mother that’s in here starvin’, if I got a daddy that’s in jail, your $12 don’t fix that.”
Perry circled back. “But if you miss that $50,000 sting, your problems still exist and you either dead or in jail.”
It’s worth the gamble, McDaniel said.
McDaniel was unmoved, and Perry was late for practice. After Perry left, I sat with McDaniel to hear him out.
“At his age, I agree with him,” McDaniel said. “At my age? I can’t.”
“Why not?” I asked.
“He done lived a majority of his life. He had his ups, he went to jail, he had his downs. So now you come home from jail and you just mellow out. That’s cool, that’s understandable. But do you hear what he’s saying? He’s building his systems through their system.”
To McDaniel, “the system” represents the circumstances and people and technology that landed him on the heat list in the first place.
“I just can’t do that,” McDaniel went on. “I can’t trust them.”