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1 week ago
Why Hundreds of Mathematicians Are Boycotting Predictive Policing

 
Originally published in Popular Mechanics, July 28, 2020

Some academics are calling the controversial practice a “scientific veneer for racism.”

Several prominent academic mathematicians want to sever ties with police departments across the U.S., according to a letter submitted to Notices of the American Mathematical Society on June 15. The letter arrived weeks after widespread protests against police brutality, and has inspired over 1,500 other researchers to join the boycott.

These mathematicians are urging fellow researchers to stop all work related to predictive policing software, which broadly includes any data analytics tools that use historical data to help forecast future crime, potential offenders, and victims. The technology is supposed to use probability to help police departments tailor their neighborhood coverage so it puts officers in the right place at the right time.

“Given the structural racism and brutality in U.S. policing, we do not believe that mathematicians should be collaborating with police departments in this manner,” the authors write in the letter. “It is simply too easy to create a ‘scientific’ veneer for racism. Please join us in committing to not collaborating with police. It is, at this moment, the very least we can do as a community.”

Some of the mathematicians include Cathy O’Neil, author of the popular book Weapons of Math Destruction, which outlines the very algorithmic bias that the letter rallies against. There’s also Federico Ardila, a Colombian mathematician currently teaching at San Francisco State University, who is known for his work to diversify the field of mathematics.

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