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September 2021
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DOJ Now Investigating Florida Sheriff's Office For Using A Federal Grant To Fund Its 'Predictive Policing' Harassment Programs

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The Pasco County (FL) Sheriff's Office believes in "intelligence-led policing." This is its formal slang for harassing residents until (in the office's own words) "they sue or move." The Sheriff's Office turns anyone with a criminal background into a suspect-for-life. Deputies visit residences and residents on the "intelligence-led" shit list multiple times a month, demanding answers to questions they have no business asking. When residents fail to comply, nuisance (in every sense of the word) citations are issued for things like uncut grass or missing mailbox numbers.It doesn't really matter whether the Sheriff's Office believes its own PR bullshit. It is fully engaged in harassing as many residents as possible. That's why it's allowed its so-called predictive policing program to infiltrate local schools, subjecting minors (and their families) to the same harassment previously limited to adults with criminal records. Almost anything can trigger unwelcome interactions with the office's deputies, including slipping grades, missed school days, or simply being the victim of, or witness to domestic violence.Local schools are apparently fine with this. They've been sharing student records with the Sheriff's Office. And the Sheriff's Office has been sharing this info with officers. Both of these actions appear to violate federal and local student privacy laws. Not that the Sheriff's Office cares. It says it has done nothing wrong -- only availed itself of records shared with it (unlawfully) by schools.The exposure of these programs by the Tampa Bay Times has led to multiple investigations and accusations of lawbreaking. One of these investigations involves the federal government, which makes it clear it's not just the locals that find the Sheriff's Office's programs abhorrent. The Department of Education opened an investigation in April to determine whether the in-school "intelligence-led policing" violated federal student privacy laws.There's a new federal investigation underway. The Department of Justice wants to know what the fuck is going on in Pasco County, Florida. (h/t WarOnPrivacy)

The U.S. Department of Justice is conducting an “intensive review” of the Pasco Sheriff’s Office’s latest intelligence program, federal officials said this week.The Justice Department sent a letter to the Sheriff’s Office on Aug. 6 — two weeks after the Tampa Bay Times reported that the Sheriff’s Office had promised increased police scrutiny for people whose criminal histories included violent crimes and drug offenses.The Justice Department’s letter raised concerns about the methodology used to identify targets, communications with the community and the “insufficient” coordination with relevant law enforcement agencies.
The DOJ's interest no doubt has something to do with the Tampa Bay Times' incredible reporting. But it also wants to know why it gave the Sheriff's Office $700,000 if it was just going to use it to violate the terms of the Bureau of Justice Assistance grant.This is from the DOJ's letter [PDF] to the Pasco County Sheriff's Office:
Agencies that receive SPI funding are expected to engage members of their communities as allies in reducing violence, ensure transparency in their crime reduction approaches whenever feasible, and establish innovative and effective working relationships with citizens and community leaders to gain support for their proposed policing initiatives. Trust, and building trust, is at the core of SPI funding.
But:
PCSO recently circulated the attached letter to individuals regarding a PCSO-run program (the “PCSO program”), which claimed to be “in cooperation with the Department of Justice’s Strategies for Policing Innovation Initiative.” However, the letter does not adequately depict the dedicated training and technical resources under SPI provided by the Department, nor does it adequately describe the requirements for greater community engagement required for SPI’s success.
And:
We also have concerns regarding the methodology used to identify individuals for inclusion in the PCSO program; the name of the program; communications about the program; the lack of involvement and communication with the greater community about the program; and the insufficient coordination with relevant law enforcement stakeholder groups. These shortcomings have the unfortunate consequence of eroding trust in the community, rather than building trust. Given this, and given the goals of SPI, BJA will undertake an immediate assessment of the activities funded under this grant award.
Brace for some federal damnation. Also, brace for opening up the Pasco County coffers to… um… cough up the $700,000 misused by the Sheriff's Office to (and I will quote here) "erode trust in the community."The Sheriff's Office has responded [PDF]. And it claims it is completely baffled that the DOJ would think its BS predictive policing/targeted harassment program would undermine trust in the community it's supposed to be serving. Instead, it says it followed the instructions given to it by the Trump DOJ.
The Pasco Sheriff's Office (PSO) is in receipt of your correspondence dated August 6, 2021 re- garding the Smart Policing Initiative grant awarded to PSO in 2018. After careful review of the letter, we are left confused as to the origins of the concerns and intentions expressed by the Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA). Over the last two years, PSO has been working hand-in-hand with the subject matter experts (SMES)' assigned by BIA to implement this grant. In fulfilling the conditions of the grant, PSO actively collaborates with the BJA-assigned SMEs as well as the University of South Florida (USF) in research partnership and follows all guidance and directives they provide. The written feedback provided by these SMEs included phrases such as “excellent job!” and “the messaging was delivered well,” and referenced the “fantastic partnerships” PSO established with the SPI project. Yet for reasons unknown to PSO, your letter directly contradicts the guidance we have been provided over the last two years.
No doubt the current DOJ (headed by Merrick Garland) takes a different view of community-oriented policing than the DOJ led by Jeff Sessions and Bill Barr did. If there's any confusion, it's due to the DOJ reining in its focus on civil rights violations under Donald Trump and its reemergence post Trump as an agency that will at least engage in investigations of problematic law enforcement agencies, even if it's not that great at delivering sustainable results.Too bad. Meet the new boss, not quite the same as the old boss. Flow my tears, the sheriff who didn't want to comprehend the new paradigm said:
We were excited to work with BJA on this innovative, research-driven initiative, and we are extremely disappointed by this abrupt change in direction.
That's weird. I thought law enforcement officers are trained experts on reacting to fast-moving situations. But maybe that only refers to the indiscriminate deployment of excessive and/or deadly force. Maybe the only ways cops can embrace change is with chokeholds and bullets.Sure, it doesn't help that the DOJ sent contradictory messages to the Pasco County Sheriff's Office. But as Pasco County Sheriff Chris Nocco surely is aware (being that his position is an elected position), the rules can change when the regime changes. The previous administration may have felt the public was the problem and shows of force by armed government employees was the solution. But the current administration doesn't feel that way. And it has every right to ask why the Pasco County Sheriff's Office spent nearly a million dollars in federal money alienating the community and harassing their kids.

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posted at: 12:00am on 22-Sep-2021
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Another Mod War: Jagex Demands Shutdown Of HD RuneScape Mod, Retracts After Public Backlash

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The gaming industry modding wars continue. We had recently discussed Nintendo's continued war on anyone who mods its games, including shutting down tournaments for incredibly minor uses of mods that make those tournaments possible. We've also been discussing Take-Two's attack on its modding community for the Grand Theft Auto franchise. On the flip side, companies like CD Projekt Red and Bethesda have so embraced their own modding communities as to have hired some of them onto their teams as salaried employees.I have no idea why this has suddenly become a thing over the past several months, but these binary stories are coming far more frequently than they previously did. Everyone is in one camp or the other: embrace the modding community of fans or smack them around. There is a correct answer to all of this, of course, and it seems clear that the answer is to treat your greatest fans in a way that is cool and human. Nintendo, giant in the industry as they might be, loses good will and gains little by exerting strict control over how its games are played. Take-Two, same story. Meanwhile, those that embrace their biggest fans get to keep their games relevant for longer through mods, build up good will with their customers, and even get to pull from a talent pool that materializes all on its own.But some companies just don't get it and have to be educated in the court of public opinion. Jagex, makers of RuneScape, are just such a company. Just days ago, the company announced a shutdown of a major RuneScape mod that would bring HD graphics to the game, called Runelite HD. It was scheduled to be released on 9/8/21, but then...

In this blog we’d like to clarify our stance on third-party HD clients (and other projects which seek to radically change the visual appearance of the game). We know you’ve got lots of questions about them, and we think this will provide you with all the clarity we need.Yesterday we contacted the developers of known HD projects and we asked them to stop development of their projects, because this is a project we are directly investigating at Jagex. We look forward to being able to share progress as our own in-house project with Old School’s visuals unfolds.
As Kotaku notes, there are a couple of problems with this. First off, nothing in what Runelite HD offers appears to violate the modding guidelines that Jagex has published. So, mods are allowed under certain rules, and Runelite HD developer 117 appears to have followed those rules, but the project was still shut down the day before its release. Second, based on 117's own public statements, Jagex's plan to have a graphical update to RuneScape was still essentially in the exploratory phase, leading 117 to offer a simple solution.
I offered a compromise of removing my project from RuneLite once they are ready to release theirs, in addition to allowing them collaborative control over the visual direction of my project. They declined outright.So, it appears that this is the end. Approximately 2000 of hours of work over two years. A huge outpouring of support from all of you. I could never have imagined the overwhelmingly positive response I’ve had to this project.
Jagex outright declined... and RuneScape fans absolutely lost their minds. And, as a result of in-game and IRL protests over its actions, Jagex reversed course the very next day.
We hear your feedback loud and clear and we’ve been discussing that feedback all day and, while discussions continue, we absolutely intend to act on it.Our conversations today have also included 117Scape and Adam from RuneLite and we are actively exploring options on how we can work together to offer 117Scape’s plug-in as a bridge until our own version is ready for release.
The very compromise that 117 offered is now what's on the table. This whole thing could have been completely avoided if Jagex hadn't decided that direct profits and control were somehow worth pissing off a major swath of its biggest fans. It's a complete own-goal, in other words, where the end result is what the community wanted all along, only now they're absolutely furious with the company.Again, how is this smart? How is it good business? How does this desire for complete control keep happening, even when it regularly results in public blowback?

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posted at: 12:00am on 10-Sep-2021
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Video Games, Once Demonized, More Regularly Utilized For Positive Health Benefits

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For decades now, video games have been largely demonized by a certain segment of the population that probably were annoyed when great evils like jazz music and chess were also demonized. Video games, say this group, make kids lazy and fat, degrade social skills, keep them from going outside and hitting each other with sticks or something, and also make them all violent school shooters. That many of these same charges were levied on such horrible activities as chess, Dungeons & Dragons, or any of the other moral panics we kicked off appears to be lost on most everyone. Video games are evil, full stop.Until they're not, of course. And, fortunately, the tide continues to turn as more and more people play video games more and more. Already we've seen studies suggesting that gaming can actually be a very healthy activity, even for children. But not just for children. Gaming can also, according to a new study, be beneficial for older folks when it comes to combatting depression.

Playing video games might look like a fun way to spend an afternoon. "They get addicting," said Laurie Featherstone, age 60, who lives in Millcreek. But it can also be so much more."When you go to someone like me and say, 'I'm depressed,' you expect me to say, 'Well, you should take some medicine or you should go to therapy.' So we're really proposing a third, very odd option to patients," said Shizuko Morimoto, a University of Utah population health sciences professor.Morimoto, a neuroscientist, treated Featherstone with video games designed to target the cognitive control center of the brain which malfunctions in depressed patients.
Morimoto ran several clinical trials with patients of depression between the ages of 60 and 85. The games were developed specifically to combat malfunctioning parts of the brain that lead to depression, so, no, this isn't Grandma mowing people down in Call of Duty. But that isn't really the point, as video games have been demonized beyond just shooters or violent games. But like anything else, a tool, or video game, can be good or bad depending on how you use it.
One is a word game; the other, a gardening game. "Flowers are growing and you're tapping on watering buckets and you're shooing away bugs and you're looking at the weather," he said.But there's much more going on behind the colorful flowers. The better you get at the game the harder it becomes. It also charts your progress, giving vital feedback and improving care.Featherstone said it's an intense workout. "It felt like I'd gone out and ran you know, a 5K race and but with my brain," she said.
The NIH has offered a $7.5 million grant to expand this study into a much larger population. The point here isn't that all video games are good for you, or that all of them are bad for you. Either assertion is self-evidently stupid. The point instead is that there is nuance to all of this and blanket policies or grand statements devoid of that nuance are silly.Are video games good for you, or bad? It depends, but we can now say for sure that the most panicked among us are wrong.

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posted at: 12:00am on 19-Aug-2021
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The FTC Is Driving Away Good Economists In Favor Of Political Henchmen

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Shut up and get in line — that's the message Federal Trade Commission Chair Lina Khan recently broadcasted to FTC staffers. Within her first month as a new commissioner, Khan ordered a stop to all public speaking for "an all-hands-on-deck moment." Evidently, she wants the FTC speaking with only one voice — her own. The gag order is going to run out the top economists and harm the FTC's long-term effectiveness.Khan rose to academic stardom at a young age as a vocal critic of Big Tech, especially Amazon. In her most famous writing, Amazon's Antitrust Paradox, she argued for stronger antitrust enforcement even when companies are lowering prices for consumers. Khan's preferred antitrust approach would be a complete overhaul of the current antitrust system and would require a lot of work. However, even if one agrees with Khan that antitrust needs to be rewritten and that this is an all-hands-on-deck moment, Khan's current regime will make that impossible by running out her employees, especially Ph.D. economists.Imagine yourself as a recent Ph.D. in economics from a hotshot university. You're 30 years old, and you just spent 6 years in graduate school, earning $20,000. Before that, you may have spent two years as a research assistant to a professor, earning just as little. You're a top student in your program and have lots of career options in front of you. You could go work at Amazon or Netflix and earn $200,000 a year, base salary. After living on a strict diet of research and Top Ramen in graduate school, that sounds pretty good.Traditionally, federal agencies, like the FTC, compete for the best economists the same way universities compete. They can't match the pay of an Amazon, but they can offer economists a valuable perk: the ability to do research and engage with the scientific community as part of the job.For many economists, who have already demonstrated their passion for research by writing a dissertation and completing a Ph.D., doing research is a huge perk that most private companies don't offer. The FTC knows this. In their own job postings for PhD economists, the FTC explicitly emphasizes their economists' ability to do research. To date, that hiring strategy has worked pretty well for them. Many economists at the FTC are top-notch researchers, with thousands of citations, an impressive feat for a full-time researcher at a university. When the FTC hires new PhDs, they are saying "you can work in public service and still be a successful researcher."Khan's recent policies signal the FTC is now less committed to research and independent thinking. Public academic seminars, where economists present their findings to colleagues throughout the profession, are a key part of the research and publication process. If you cut off economists' ability to present their research and get feedback, you cut off the ability to do research.The real damage will take some time to show itself. Even if the gag order does not run out the current economists, who may be loyal to the FTC after years, the order will still hurt the agency over time. Any successful agency needs to hire quality employees year in and year out. If this policy persists, the FTC will have trouble down the line hiring and retaining high-quality employees, especially economists.Khan might not think she needs these economists right now; after all, she has made clear she opposes the economic approach to antitrust. But when the FTC takes companies to court, as we can expect it will do even more often under Khan, it needs expert witnesses to persuasively argue its case. The private companies pay $1,000 per hour for economists at the top of the profession. The FTC must hire top talent too.If you were against antitrust enforcement and wanted to ruin the FTC from within, Khan's strategy would be nearly perfect. Step 1: Run out all the competent lawyers and rigorous, scientific economists. Step 2: Bring forth a bunch of cases that are poorly argued and lack an economic defense. Step 3: Lose those cases at the current Supreme Court and set a bunch of precedents against the FTC.Brian Albrecht is an assistant professor of economics at Kennesaw State University. He holds a Ph.D. in economics from the University of Minnesota. He is a Young Voices contributor and writes a weekly economics newsletter (pricetheory.substack.com). Follow him on Twitter: @briancalbrecht.

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posted at: 12:00am on 29-Jul-2021
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