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e are writing as a group of academics, scholar-activists and geographers who have been moved by calls to defund the police and divest from carceral technologies. Following calls across universities for Cops Off Campus, and the work of solidarity with abolition movements across the world, we came together through a series of roundtables and presentations at the American Association of Geographers (AAG) in the spring of 2022 to consider what a police-free world might look like. While there is a long history of scholarship by U.S. geographers linking prisons and policing with the reworking of racial capitalism (Gilmore, 2007; Gilmore, 2022; Jefferson, 2020; Massaro and Boyce, 2022; Ramírez, 2022; Smith, 1996; Story, 2019) and a burgeoning thread of work on abolition and activism by geographers (Gilmore, 2022; Heynen and Ybarra, 2021; Ybarra, 2020), we looked directly at how geography as a discipline is implicated in the police and prison industrial complex. One of the overlooked connections between geography and policing in the present is found in geospatial technologies. In this essay, we raise the issue of carceral geo-spatial analytics with a particular focus on the company Environmental Systems Research Institute (Esri). Esri supports police departments and law enforcement agencies, branches of the US military, and the US “crimmigration” apparatus, including through specialized products and training geared toward surveillance, predictive analytics, and carceral control.
As geographers, it is our responsibility to understand not only the outcomes of the tools we use, but the production, contradictions and relations of those tools. In Dear Science and Other Stories Katherine McKittrick (2020: 107) asks: “How might we shift our methodological questions so that we do not end up in an analytical bind that affirms rather than undoes racial violence?” We build on this question to consider the ways that in shifting our methodological questions we must necessarily shift our research tools. We must not take for granted the building blocks of our research, because if we do, we risk reproducing the very violence we seek to resist and/or change.
If we have learned anything in the last decades of our work, it is that surveillance and policing are central to spatial understanding and geo-spatial technologies. Geographers are called upon to solve or fix social problems through the collection and visualization of spatial data; and through the carceral and militaristic regulation of space. Indeed, geography as a discipline was founded on directives to map peripheral regions for the understanding of colonial metropoles, grew through counter-intelligence projects designed to destabilize revolutionary movements and implicated in imperial technologies (Barnes, 2006; Child and Barnes, 2019; Smith, 1992).
It is only through an “ethical critique of the core historical and contemporary functions of policing that we can establish a real system of justice” and, additionally, move toward a Geography without police (Vitale, 2021: 247). As such, this essay is driven by two questions: What is the contemporary relationship between geography and policing? And, in tracing this connection, how are geographers resisting and divesting from policing? In so doing, we seek to push Geography toward a research praxis that aligns with abolition frameworks not only in our analyses, but also in our methods. We hope to illuminate concrete steps that geographers can take to practice abolition and organize toward police-free research and a police-free world.
Esri and policing
Esri, a privately-owned company founded by Jack and Laura Dangermond in 1969, is headquartered in Redlands, California and has branch locations across the world. As of 2015, Esri held 43% market share in GIS, while the next largest share accounts for only 11% of the GIS market. Esri’s ArcGIS platform is regarded as the “industry standard”; the majority of GIS training programs in geography departments throughout North America and globally train students in GIS using Esri’s platforms. Thus, Esri is the dominant company in GIS markets and holds the majority of contracts with businesses, government agencies and higher education in North America.
In addition to its role in academia, Esri is also the leading company offering mapping, and geo-spatial analysis platforms and services, to police departments. In their article tracing the past, present, and future of GIS, Esri co-founder and CEO Jack Dangermond and geographer Michael Goodchild (2020) rightfully claim that geospatial technology is a part of nearly all human activity. One of the major applications for GIS in the present is law enforcement, military and security: “Law enforcement makes use of GIS in numerous ways, from the planning of police districts and patrols to the analysis of geographic patterns of crime” (Dangermond and Goodchild, 2020: 4). Police agencies rely on geospatial technology for their daily operations.
Esri offers an array of mapping, geo-spatial analysis, dashboards, operations and data management, and predictive policing tools. Among their offerings, Esri sells tools for crime analysis to law enforcement agencies including hot spot: analysis; integrating and analyzing data from diverse sensors and open source data in urban environments; Compstat dashboards; as well as tools for providing public data and transparency in the face of policing’s loss of legitimacy. Esri also provides “out-of-the box predictive policing tools” and trainings designed to “predict future incidents.” Scholars across campuses have denounced the efficacy of predictive policing. Esri is also in the business of training police forces to utilize GIS tools, by providing webinars; courses; resources such as blogs with video trainings and case studies about police departments implementing their tools; literature such as books and white papers that promote the use of GIS in both policing and corrections; as well as conferences and summits for law enforcement. All of these elements come together under the umbrella of Esri’s “Law Enforcement Solutions” which purport to provide law enforcement agencies with “The Complete Modern Police Mapping and Analytics System.”
In our search of the Esri Partner Network for keywords “public safety”, “law enforcement”, and “security”, we found more than 25 companies globally that leverage Esri’s ArcGIS to create products to aid in policing, surveillance, and prisons. These companies range from Net Owl, a company that provides sentiment analysis for social media monitoring; to Dunaway Associates, which provides mapping and dispatch data for college and university campus police units; to Marquis Software, which provides electronic home monitoring for departments of corrections in the U.S.; to ShotSpotter, an auditory geo-spatial tool for police and security forces that has been involved in at least one police murder; and LexisNexis CopLogic Solutions, which provides crime analysis software. The parent company, LexisNexis, is boycotted among abolitionist lawyers and legal scholars who object to the way that the company serves as a data broker for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
While Esri and their partners claim their tools aid in transparency, efficiency, and objective decision-making of police agencies, we reject the notion that technological reforms make policing any less violent. Abolition thought-leader Mariame Kaba (2021: 70) reminds us that technological advancements are often used against the public rather than as a way toward more just worlds: “Police violence won’t end through technological advances (no matter what someone is selling you).” Instead, technological advance re-encodes and legitimizes racialized police violence. In the words of Katherine McKittrick (2020: 107), social problems that are covered under police jurisdiction are “resolved through producing calculations, equations, and problem-solving operations; these problems (black people) are translated into cartographically itemized racial codes.” Police work involves tracking, surveilling and marking black and/ or poor geographies as danger zones even while “claiming that this is not profiling because places, rather than people, are being targeted” (McKittrick, 2020: 107). Indeed, using geospatial technology to identify criminal spaces, rather than individual actions, does not make policing less harmful, or decrease racist practices. What is more, the combination of big data, surveillance technologies and spatial analytics has the power to extend carceral power of the state and the entrenchment of racial subjugation throughout urban space (Jefferson, 2019). The transformation of carceral urban governance through the integration of the Internet of Things with carceral governance extends the investment of companies like Esri in carceral expansion. Rather than marrying policing and information capital, we must rethink policing, public safety, and security (Vitale, 2021: 27).
Esri, its tools and trainings for enabling police violence, and its network of partnerships with other private companies that extend carceral space, are a critical site of intersection between our discipline of Geography and policing and prisons. Esri is the platinum sponsor of the American Association of Geographers’ annual conference each year, and vends software to most of our geography departments for use in our research and teaching. Further, the vast majority of our departments train students in cartography and geo-spatial analysis using Esri’s platforms and products; these students then go on to work for agencies, including police forces, and even Esri itself.
Esri has been the lead sponsor of the AAG annual conference and in 2022 was the sole Platinum Sponsor, reflecting a $15,000 or higher investment, a corner booth in the exhibition hall, and Esri branding on conference swag. In their partnership, and in accordance with the AAG’s current strategic plan, Esri and AAG have begun to explore concerns about the ethics of geo-spatial analysis, through a series called GEOEthics. Within this series, geographers have begun to explore ethical issues with geo-spatial analysis with reference to surveillance, bioethics, health data and privacy, and more. However, the realities of police violence, the deprivations and violence of prisons, and the role of spatial surveillance and analytics in these were glossed in this series as “impacts on individuals” that are potentially “concerning”, rather than systemic and death-dealing. A reckoning is in order.
Beyond carceral space, beyond Esri
We call on geographers, planners, geo-spatial analysts, and all spatial thinkers to divest themselves from the creation of carceral space. This includes refusing to provide research or data to police and prisons; refusing to participate in the design of spaces and technologies of confinement; and refusing to design, create, contribute to or use geospatial analysis tools for policing, immigration enforcement or corrections industries. It also means conducting research on and teaching about the relationship between our spatial disciplines and the surveillance or carceral state.
We call for the removal of Esri as a platinum sponsor of the AAG and for geography departments to divest from Esri and the teaching of Esri products. Instead, we urge geography departments and GIS programs to train students in the plethora of open source and low-cost alternatives, and even more so to ask critical questions not just about how tools can further carceral geographies, but how large-scale mapping, classification, and spatial analysis intersects with race, class, gender, and other inequalities. In so doing, we can transform spatial inquiry into something that could instead be liberatory and humane.
In making this call, we align ourselves with analyses expressed by Jack Giesking, calling for an “interruption” of the “‘status quo’ between Esri and geography as a field” (Gieseking, 2018: 55); with scholars of critical GIS and counter-mapping (Elwood, 2022; Mahmoudi and Shelton, 2022); cartographers and geo-spatial analysts who have developed geo-visualization tools to combat evictions, displacement, organized abandonment, and police violence (Anti-Eviction Mapping Project); and those who have envisioned our discipline as a field for developing just futures (Methodologies for Just Urban Futures; The Otherwise School).
A divestment from Esri is a first step toward the abolition of policing and prisons in geography as a discipline. As such, a core part of our project is to crowdsource these alternatives into a resource guide. This not only provides us with concrete next steps and options beyond Esri, but also helps us dig deeper into an expanded repertoire of geo-spatial analysis and visualization technologies used in our discipline. However, we do not believe that the challenge to divest from Esri should occur without deeply questioning the nature of our technological tools. If Esri did not harness the power of geo-spatial analysis to the expansion of policing and carceral surveillance, then other companies could and likely would. The work of abolition extends beyond the divestment from one specific company. Furthermore, Esri is not the only major information corporation that is implicated in carceral expansion – tech giants like Microsoft, Amazon, Palantir, and countless others are directly implicated in providing digital tools and infrastructures for the expansion of carceral space. But Esri, as a lead sponsor of AAG and as the software underpinning many geographers’ spatial methods work, is the company that is “close to home” for us in Geography. As such, divesting from Esri remains an essential step toward a police free future.
One of this Society and Space forum’s major themes has been the building of life-affirming practices and engagement in abolitionist place-making. This is an inseparable project from the destruction of death-dealing practices and institutions, such as policing. In this essay we have focused on Esri and its collaborations with policing and carceral space, to illuminate the ubiquity of carceral technologies and their intersection with our Geography departments. Though it might seem difficult to change our approaches to the technology we use, especially given that Esri holds a dominant share of the worldwide GIS market, we believe that this first essential step can only be made by developing an alternative research praxis.
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Jane Henderson is a Mellon Faculty Fellow in the Geography Department at Dartmouth College. She studies historical geographies of Minneapolis, abolitionist worldbuilding and black geographies beyond the plantation.
Leah Montange is the Bissell-Heyd Lecturer and Assistant Professor, Teaching Stream in American Studies at the University of Toronto. Her research and teaching focus on immigration enforcement, labor, borders and prisons.