In the weeks after George Floyd was murdered, US police flooded the streets in more than 100 cities with some form of teargas, according to an analysis by the New York Times.
A later analysis of 7,305 protest events in all 50 states, involving millions of attendees during May and June, found that police used teargas or related substances in about 183 of these events, or 2.5% of them. Experts called the use of teargas a dangerous choice during a pandemic involving a respiratory disease; hundreds of protesters in one city have reported lasting health effects, including abnormal menstrual cycles.
The Guardian selected 18 police departments that used teargas for a closer examination of their documented uses of force since 2019, suspecting they may have troubling interactions with residents more broadly. We turned to the FBI for this data, because the bureau was tasked with collecting it after the first wave of protests against police killings of Black people that began in 2014.
Only half responded to our requests, and those that did sent us back extraordinarily varied data points, making comparisons across departments or years virtually impossible. Only two sent back substantial data.
Among police departments that sent us information, there was a striking pattern: a tendency to use force at far higher rates against people who were not white, especially Black people.
More than half a decade after Eric Garner in New York and Michael Brown in Ferguson were killed by police, the public is still unable to access this information for the majority of US police departments, raising concerns about the ability of the nation’s top law enforcement agency to institute even the barest transparency reforms.
In 2015, the Guardian and the Washington Post began tracking killings by police, leaning on local news coverage. Both efforts represented an embarrassment for James Comey, the then FBI director, who called it “unacceptable” that the FBI did not have its own count of similar events.
The bureau wanted to collect deeper data that included not just killings, but also serious injuries and all officer firearm discharges, according to Gina Hawkins, the police chief of the Fayetteville police department in North Carolina and the chair of the FBI’s National Use-of-Force Data Collection Task Force.
“We realized the only data reporting on how often citizens died as a result of an encounter with an officer was based off media coverage, which is sporadic,” Hawkins, the taskforce’s third chairperson, told the Guardian. “There are a lot of smaller agencies that don’t get a lot of media coverage, so you may not know what’s happening there.”
The program stalled after Donald Trump became president, Hawkins said, but in 2018 the FBI released a summary of information it collected through a pilot program. So far in 2021, the FBI says, 40% of law enforcement agencies have reported officers’ use-of-force data on a monthly basis. The agency publicly discloses the departments currently participating.
But the actual use-of-force data submitted to the FBI by police departments is not available for public review. The FBI says it won’t release this information until 80% of agencies in the country participate.
Hawkins says the FBI is closing in on 50% but because the program is voluntary, there’s no guarantee that police departments will continue sending data to the FBI. An FBI spokesperson told the Guardian in an email that the bureau attempts to raise awareness among police about the program at conferences and digital advertising through various law enforcement organizations.
Yet even Hawkins is surprised at how long the effort has dragged on.
“I never imagined in 2016, when I started, this would be going on in 2021,” Hawkins says. “I never imagined it’d be going on, and we’d still be establishing the format, all the work that’s gone into it, I never thought it’d take this long.”
Because the FBI has not released any force data it has collected, the Guardian attempted to verify the effectiveness of the program by asking police for the same use-of-force reports they sent to the FBI. We also sent a records request for this exact data to the FBI, which declined to provide it.
Though the data we received was incomplete, it still indicated that police used aggressive force against Black and Native American people most often in cities where police used chemical munitions to disperse protesters last year..
In Asheville, North Carolina, for example, which maintains an open data portal that includes 136 unique use of force events involving police dating back to 2018, Black people were 3.3 times more likely to have force used against them compared with white people. The city’s definition of “force” is broader than the FBI’s, and includes physical force but also Taser, showing a firearm, showing a Taser, pepper spray, gunshots and using a baton.
There was also a spike in use-of-force events in Asheville last June, around the time that protests there began. Asheville police deployed chemical munitions several times against protesters, which it considers to be a use of force.
In Green Bay, Wisconsin, officers used teargas and pepper spray against protesters in the days following the murder of Floyd. The department documented 89 unique use-of-force events in 2019 and 2020. “Use-of-force” was defined by Green Bay police as various grappling and physical strikes; the use of Tasers; the use of dogs; the use of batons; the use of teargas or pepper spray; and shootings. A quarter of all use-of-force incidents were committed by the same six officers.
The information we received from other police departments, while limited, also show disparities in how police applied force against Black people.
For example, the Brockton police department in Massachusetts – which one state representative accused of using teargas indiscriminately and violently – sent us documentation for just one incident in which officers shot a Black man in 2019.
Similarly, in Omaha, Nebraska, where video shows police using teargas at point blank range against protesters sitting on the ground, police reported killing three people in 2019 and 2020 by shooting them, all Black men.
The St Paul police department in Minnesota reported six shootings in 2019 and 2020 total, half of them against Black men. Police used gas many times against protesters in the Minneapolis-St Paul region last year, though it was not always clear which police force deployed it.
The Spokane police department in Washington and the Wichita police department in Kansas, two cities where activists told the Guardian that chemical munitions against protesters were rare, only provided aggregated data primarily involving officers that shot someone. St Louis police in Missouri, where a judge in 2014 ordered limits on the use of gas amid protests then, provided similarly limited data.
San Diego police sent us links to two websites containing information for some use-of-force events over the last several decades, disclosures mandated by California state law. At one point during protests last year, officers fired a teargas canister inside a county administration building, allegedly by mistake.
Five police departments did not respond substantively to our requests. Three departments either rejected our requests or imposed costs that were prohibitively expensive.
Since 2015, activist researchers with Campaign Zero have tried to track police killings nationwide through their Mapping Police Violence project, relying on a mix of available media reports, criminal records databases and public records to identify the race of victims. It estimates that it has accurately tracked about 92% of killings by police since 2013.
Mapping Police Violence has filed public records requests to about 500 of the largest police departments in the country, according to co-founder Sam Sinyangwe. There are about 18,000 in total.
Among the 100 largest departments in the nation, according to Mapping Police Violence’s analysis of killings between January 2013 and December 2020, Black people accounted for 38% of killings by police despite only being about 21% of the population, and 44% of unarmed people killed by the 100 largest city police departments were Black.
Drilling down further into that data presents its own challenges, especially when police have so much discretion over reporting it. For example, Sinyangwe says, the Dallas police department publishes officer shooting data online but considers some victims as being armed with their hands. Dallas police teargassed protesters last year.
“We’re seeing how some police are sharing data in a way that is designed to obscure violence – that’s another big worry,” Sinyangwe says. Such machinations could make the FBI’s attempts at tracking use-of-force more unreliable.
“It’s a waste of time, we already have more data than they have let alone what [the FBI is] sharing to the public,” Sinyangwe says.
Hawkins defended the FBI’s program.
“We have definitions and clarifications, and it is a true apples-to-apples comparison,” Hawkins says. “So, if someone says they’re doing a better job than the FBI, then they need to be on the taskforce and say how they were able to collect it.”
Several states have passed laws mandating police departments disclose when their officers use force since 2015, including Texas, Illinois, New Jersey and Minnesota. But even if the US’s thousands of police departments suddenly started reporting use-of-force in greater detail, this only tells part of the story – and could crowd out discussion of the racist conditions that lead to police encounters in the first place.
“Without the interaction data, the initial data of when a cop interacted with an individual, it’s hard to understand any outcome data, including arrests and use of force,” says Abdul Rad, a doctoral candidate in sociology at the University of Oxford who studies obstacles to police accountability.
“It’s missing that first part of the picture critical to understanding bias in policing, and why.”
One study published by the American Political Science Association last year found that if police officers are racially discriminating who they choose to investigate and apprehend, and if that discrimination isn’t acknowledged, then any analysis –including the FBI’s data collection program – could “severely underestimate levels of racially biased policing or mask discrimination entirely”.
At the same time, there’s plenty of research showing force used by police is more lethal against Black people. In addition, the areas where Black people live – an arrangement resulting from 20th-century federal policies amounting to apartheid – are exposed to anti-social patrols far more often than majority-white neighborhoods.
Why, then, is it important to obtain more data on how police use force, when the grim reality of policing is already so well-known by a majority of Americans?
“Transparency is important to help build support for what solutions should look like,” Sinyangwe says. “It can help you understand which departments are shooting people at higher rates than the national average, which departments have larger disparities in policing – all of this is critical to building support for and thinking about what policy interventions should look like to address the issues.
“But the police won’t police themselves, so how do we get that data and convert it into policy that results in changes in practice?”
Climate change: Floods, fires, smog: AI delivers images of how climate change could affect your city | USA
The full brunt of the devastating effects of climate change is still a long way off. If we don’t experience the impact directly, it’s difficult to fully internalize the extreme seriousness of the climate crisis.
That’s why a team at the Mila-Quebec Artificial Intelligence Institute, led by Professor Yoshua Bengio, wants to bring it home – right to your doorstep in fact. His team has developed a tool that makes it possible to visualize the effects of floods, wildfires and smog anywhere in the world. Their simulation does this by making use of a generative adversarial network (GAN), a type of machine-learning algorithm. GANs can also produce things such as deepfake images, which are digitally composed of millions of images to create realistic photos of something (or someone) new.
For two years, 30 scientists have worked on the project, which is named after thispersondoesnotexist.com, a website portfolio of deepfake faces. Bengio’s version is called “This Climate Does Not Exist.” All a user has to do is type in an address or select a marker on Google Street View, and then indicate what kind of catastrophe they want to see: flood, wildfire or smog. The algorithm works its magic and returns the image with the requested effect. These images are not intended to be an accurate portrayal of what would happen at each specific location if no action on climate change is taken, but rather are a recreation of the worst possible effects in the scenario of the user’s choice.
The realism is particularly striking in the flooding option, which was the most difficult for Bengio’s team to produce. The algorithm takes the location proposed by the user, automatically places a layer of water on it and then adapts it to the environment of the image itself. The result is hyperrealistic.
“One of the most important challenges has been getting the algorithm to simulate flooding in a wide variety of images,” explains Alex Hernandez-Garcia, one of the project’s lead researchers. “One module of the algorithm is in charge of detecting which parts of the image should be covered with water and another module is in charge of generating the water texture by incorporating the context of the image, for example, the reflection of buildings. Finally, these results are combined to generate the final image.”
To detect which parts to cover with water and which to leave unscathed, Hernandez-Garcia and his colleagues combined several artificial intelligence (AI) and machine-learning techniques. “We generated a virtual city that allowed us to make a series of images with and without water. We also adjusted an algorithm that was able to make good predictions in that virtual world, detecting the different parts of a scene: the ground, cars, buildings, trees, people and so on,” he explained. “However, the algorithm must be able to make good predictions based on real images [those from Google Street View].” For the latter, they used generative adversarial networks.
The process is completed in a few seconds, and before displaying the image to the user some information is provided about the causes and consequences of the selected weather phenomenon, and its relationship to climate change. For example, if a flood is chosen, it indicates that flash floods kill about 5,000 people a year, that sea levels are expected to rise by two meters by the end of the century and that this major disruption to the planet will forever alter the lives of at least one billion people by the end of 2050. “If we do nothing, soon we will face major climate catastrophes,” says Professor Bengio, the institute’s scientific director. “This website makes the risks of climate change much more real and personal to people,” he argues.
Generative adversarial networks
The quality of AI took a giant leap forward about a decade ago with the emergence and consolidation of machine learning and deep learning. These techniques are based on training a machine so that it is capable of performing complex tasks after reaching certain conclusions on its own. For example, if you want the algorithm to distinguish between blueberry muffins and chihuahuas, the programmer will feed it a series of examples of each category, followed by thousands of images that are not pre-sorted. The machine will establish which is which, and when it gets it wrong and is made aware of the error, will refine its criteria.
Bengio won the 2018 Turing Award, considered the Nobel Prize of computer science, along with Geoffrey Hinton and Yann LeCun, for their contribution to the development of neural networks. This is a further step in machine learning that attempts to mimic the functioning of the human brain: applying several simultaneous layers of processing to increase performance. Neural networks are behind the most complex classification systems, such as voice assistants or advanced prediction models.
Generative adversarial networks (GANs) go even further. They were invented at the Mila-Quebec Artificial Intelligence Institute in 2014 and are capable of generating new content that looks faultlessly real to the human eye. GANs are behind the increasingly sophisticated deepfake videos of Tom Cruise or Donald Trump now circulating online, in which politicians or celebrities say or act in whichever way their creator likes. They work thanks to competition between two neural networks: one tries to produce images that are as realistic as possible and the other tries to detect whether they are real or a fabrication. This tension is replicated thousands or millions of times and during this process, the generating network learns to create more and more successful images. When the first network succeeds in fooling the second, we have a winning image. From there, a perfectly rendered image of New York City’s Times Square inundated by flooding is just a click away.
The Quebec lab is now using a new type of GAN they have developed to generate the climate change images seen on their website. “In general, the limited availability of images and the need to adapt the algorithm to a multitude of situations have been the main technical challenges we have faced,” says Hernandez-Garcia.
Assad regime ‘siphons millions in aid’ by manipulating Syria’s currency | Global development
The Syrian government is siphoning off millions of dollars of foreign aid by forcing UN agencies to use a lower exchange rate, according to new research.
The Central Bank of Syria, which is sanctioned by the UK, US and EU, in effect made $60m (£44m) in 2020 by pocketing $0.51 of every aid dollar sent to Syria, making UN contracts one of the biggest money-making avenues for President Bashar al-Assad and his government, researchers from the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), the Operations & Policy Center thinktank and the Center for Operational Analysis and Research found.
Hit by new US sanctions and the collapse of the banking system in neighbouring Lebanon, cash-strapped Damascus is relying increasingly on unorthodox methods for raising funds – money either pocketed by officials in Damascus for their own personal wealth, or put towards the 10-year-old war effort.
Researchers analysed hundreds of UN contracts to procure goods and services for people living in government-held areas of Syria, where more than 90% of the population are living in poverty since the Syrian pound, or lira, crashed last year.
While the central bank’s official exchange rate has improved this year to SYP2,500 to the US dollar, the black market rate is SYP3,500. Legitimate traders and consumers prefer to use the black market rate, as they receive more Syrian pounds for foreign currency.
Since the UN is forced by the Syrian government to use the official rate, half of foreign aid money exchanged into Syrian pounds in 2020, when the rates were hugely divergent, was lost after being exchanged at the lower, official rate.
“This shows an incredibly systematic way of diverting aid before it even has a chance to be implemented or used on the ground,” said Natasha Hall, of the CSIS, a Washington-based thinktank that helped compile the research.
“If the goal of sanctions overall is to deprive the regime of the resources to commit acts of violence against civilians and the goal of humanitarian aid is to reach people in need then we have this instance … where aid is at complete contradiction to those two stated goals.”
After 10 years of civil war in Syria, international donor fatigue, already seen in decreasing aid pledges, has turned to more overt political re-engagement with Assad’s regime.
Without the US playing a strong role in finding a political solution in Syria, which Washington still publicly advocates, Arab nations – including the US-allied Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Egypt – have recently restarted diplomatic talks, reopened borders for trade and signalled renewing economic cooperation.
The US allows Damascus to play a major role in funnelling Egyptian gas to Lebanon to power the country’s fuel-depleted power plants. Interpol allowed Syria to rejoin its network even as the fate of dissidents captured throughout the war remains unknown.
Examining 779 publicly available procurements for 2019 and 2020, listed on the UN Global Marketplace database, researchers found that up to $100m was lost in the exchange rate.
If salaries, cash-aid programmes and other funding streams not made public were included, the bank could be making hundreds of millions of dollars, according to researchers.
The funding has been channelled through various UN agencies – the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA); the World Food Programme; the UN Development Programme; the UNHCR; the Food and Agriculture Organisation; and Unicef.
The UN’s financial tracking system told the researchers it did not monitor the amount of money exchanged into Syrian pounds as “tracking such information was beyond the scope of their mission”.
In 2016, the UN was accused of aiding the regime by diverting billions of dollars in aid to government-held regions while leaving besieged areas without food and medicine.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) has warned that UN agencies and governments risked complicity in human rights violations in Syria if they did not ensure transparency and effective oversight.
A Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office spokesperson said: “The UK does not provide any aid through the Assad regime … Robust processes are in place to ensure that our aid reaches those who need it most.”
Hall said there was a “reticence” about investigating how much aid had been diverted. She said donors were well aware of the problem. “I think it is about [them] choosing certain battles to fight. It’s just not clear to me that any battles are being fought when it comes to aid in Syrian government-held areas today,” she said.
“There’s really no way for us, as independent consultants, to know the full extent of how aid is spent inside the country … We just wanted to flag that, even through this limited portal to understanding how much is spent, it’s already tens of millions of dollars which is hoarded.”
She believes the UN should negotiate a preferential exchange rate with the Syrian government – – to at least reduce the amount siphoned off.
Sara Kayyali, of HRW, said “there was no due diligence in terms of human rights” within UN procurement to avoid bankrolling Syria.
“This should be a wake-up call to the UN … they need to revise the way they provide aid and revise how they consider their obligations to respect human rights in light of this, because it’s difficult to justify this idea that hundreds of millions of dollars are going to an abusive state apparatus,” she said.
Danielle Moylan, a spokesperson for the UN agencies mentioned, said: “The UN welcomes all independent scrutiny of humanitarian operations in Syria. Our foremost priority has, and always will be, assisting the people in need in Syria, guided by humanitarian principles, accountability to the affected populations, transparency, efficiency and effectiveness.
“The majority of UN’s procurement for our humanitarian response in Syria is made in international and regional markets and therefore not affected by the Syrian exchange rate. Otherwise, as is the case in any country, the UN in Syria is required to use the official exchange rate,” Moylan said.
“In the past, the UN and humanitarian partners have negotiated a ‘preferential’ exchange rate for humanitarian operations [and] continues to engage the Central Bank of Syria on the issue of ‘preferential’ exchange rates.”
Alexei Navalny wins 2021 Sakharov Prize
The European Parliament announced that Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny has won the Sakharov Prize for defending human rights. The parliament’s president David Sassoli wrote on Twitter: “Alexei Navalny is the winner of this year’s #SakharovPrize. He has fought tirelessly against the corruption of Vladimir Putin’s regime. This cost him his liberty and nearly his life. Today’s prize recognises his immense bravery and we reiterate our call for his immediate release.”
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