You know concerns about race and criminal justice have permeated deeply into society when even mathematicians are riled up about the issue.
That happened last month when, according to Popular Mechanics magazine, mathematics professors and experts signed a petition that encouraged their colleagues to stop high-tech collaborations with police.
More than 1,500 have signed on, including four professors from Dartmouth College and one from the University of New Hampshire.
“It is simply too easy to create a ‘scientific’ veneer for racism,” the petition reads.
One of the police-tech tools the experts object to is predictive policing, something Manchester police and city officials have embraced and touted for the past six years.
I’ve sat through enough police commission meetings to hear about its marvels. City-purchased software crunches data about police calls, crime reports and arrests to pinpoint and predict where future crime will take place.
The software plots the data on a map and police flood the areas with Hot Spot patrols. Often they are areas with high concentrations of minorities.
You don’t want to be walking in a Hot Spot and texting. Because in such high-crime areas, any slightly suspicious behavior becomes probable cause to stop and frisk someone, said Kim Kossick, a defense lawyer who practices in Manchester.
Kossick said suspicious activity in the minds of police includes parking in an alley, constantly looking at one’s phone, jaywalking or pulling away from a curb without signaling.
“They use that as an excuse to stop people, even if the people they are stopping aren’t necessarily doing anything wrong,” Kossick said. Meanwhile, residents of the North End don’t get such scrutiny.
“We don’t know how many people are jaywalking everywhere else,” she said.
In a 2019 article on the website Vice, critics cited several issues with predictive policing:
Hot Spots are based on crime reporting, but not everyone reports crime, and some crimes go under-reported. So if the numbers are off, so are the predictions.
More cops in a neighborhood will find more crime, which creates a runaway feedback loop — as Popular Mechanics described it, a self-fulfilling prophecy where police find crimes where they’re told to look for them.
Use of arrest data, which would include information on age and race, is so vulnerable to officer bias that the PredPol software company does not collect the data, the chief executive told Popular Mechanics.
On Wednesday, I sent Police Chief Carlo Capano a copy of the articles and a couple of questions — such as how much the city has spent on predictive policing, if arrest data are used, and other details about the city’s system. He didn’t get back to me.
I also visited the Enright Park area, the city neighborhood slated for numerous Hot Spot patrols last week.
Most people I talked to say they see a lot of police, especially in the early evening. Some question how effective it’s been.
James Williams has lived in a Maple Street apartment for three years. He’s getting out. Crime has gotten worse over the past three years, he said.
“A lot of the neighbors here have become numb to it,” he said. Williams, who is 49, said it’s a comfort to see the police. He is black, and he does not feel police target him.
Arnold Rivera, 20, visits the area to see his girlfriend. He notices a lot of police.
“They just stare at me weird,” he said. Prostitutes scatter when the cops show up, he said.
Ralphie Castro, who lives on Merrimack Street, said prostitution and drug sales are the biggest crimes in the neighborhood.
“They (the police) don’t bother us. They know who lives here and who doesn’t,” he said.
In their petition, the mathematicians said problems with police technology can be solved. Mathematicians should work with organizations such as Data 4 Black Lives and Black in AI that are dedicated to end oppressive and racist practices.
Officials should require public audits of any algorithm with potentially high impacts, the petition said.
I spoke to Kelley Feeley and Gillian Shea at R&E convenience store. They said police saturate the area in the early evening. Most of the crime is petty, such as smashed car windows.
Shea was taken aback when a police officer faulted her for parking her car on the street, where it was damaged.
“Some have an attitude like you’re bothering them,” Shea said, “but others are decent and talk to you like they’re trying to help.”