EdBoard: CMU needs to analyze our complicity in harmful policing

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This week, Mayor Ed Gainey announced plans for a new policing initiative in Downtown Pittsburgh. The primary aim is to increase the number of cops on the street in order to deter violent crime, over concerns that increasing violent crime is driving business away from Downtown. This initiative is supported by an influx of Allegheny County Police Officers who will supplement the work of Pittsburgh city cops.

Whether or not there has genuinely been a spike in violent crime is hard to say — overall crime in the city has been trending down for several years. Downtown stakeholders, represented by the Downtown Neighbor's Alliance, point to recent shootings that have heightened the fear of crime among residents. Concern over crime has grown nationwide, but whether this rise is proportional to actual crime rate is a complicated question. It's also hard to overlook the fact that the Downtown Neighbor's Alliance is interested in public safety for the purposes of maximizing their revenue, and that a pattern of police which addresses their concerns may not be in the best interests of all community members. If we may be radical for a moment, when cops protect capital they often harm people.

This influx of cops has drawn criticism from the Pittsburgh Citizen Police Review Board, with some comparing it to the "Saturation Patrols" used in Memphis that were responsible for the death of Tyre Nichols.

From our perch atop Oakland, this might feel like an issue we can view at arm's length. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if many Carnegie Mellon students feel disconnected from the city in which our school is situated. Carnegie Mellon has a much higher proportion of students from out of the state than our much larger neighbor, Pitt, and often it's easy to overlook the broader impact of our school on Pittsburgh.

In 2017, the Pittsburgh Police Bureau began a pilot program in conjunction with Metro 21, an interdisciplinary research initiative at Carnegie Mellon that seeks to use technology to address urban issues. This project in particular sought to use AI and machine learning to "reduce serious violent crime in Pittsburgh through prevention without increasing arrests by predicting locations — not individuals — at heightened risk of violent crime. Police patrol activity was then directed to those locations." The program was suspended in June of 2020 by then-mayor Bill Peduto, over concerns about lack of transparency in the algorithm and potential racial bias.

An important lesson to gain from this is that work we do in STEM does not exist in a vacuum, and technological innovation without regard for societal context will simply reproduce the same injustices we should be trying to dismantle. Technology is not a silver bullet to solve injustice, it's merely a tool that we must be responsible with. Mayor Gainey's plan to add new cops to Downtown should remind us that Carnegie Mellon still exists in the community of Pittsburgh, and we should be conscientious about local events especially as it pertains to the impact of our work.