The debate over the police using machine learning is intensifying – it is considered in some quarters as controversial as stop and search.

SwissCognitiveStop and search is one of the most contentious areas of how the police interact with the public. It has been heavily criticised for being discriminatory towards black and minority ethnic groups, and for having marginal effects on reducing crime. In the same way, the police use of machine learning algorithms has been condemned by human rights groups who claim such programmes encourage racial profiling and discrimination along with threatening privacy and freedom of expression.

Broadly speaking, machine learning uses data to teach computers to make decisions without explicitly instructing them how to do it. Machine learning is used successfully in many industries to create efficiency, prioritise risk and improve decision making.

Although they are at a very early stage, the police in the UK are exploring the benefits of using machine learning methods to prevent and detect crime, and to develop new insights to tackle problems of significant public concern.

It is true that there are potential issues with any use of probabilistic machine learning algorithms in policing. For instance, when using historic data, there are risks that algorithms, when making predictions, will discriminate unfairly towards certain groups of people. But if the police approach the use of this technology in the right way, it should not be as controversial as stop and search and could go a long way towards the police being more effective in preventing and solving crimes .

A modern-day policing challenge

Consider the case of the recent public concern about drill music videos and their unique lyrical content being allegedly used to inspire, incite and glorify serious violence.

Drill music has, over the past few years, spread to major cities in the UK. Social media platforms such as YouTube and Instagram have, at the same time, witnessed a significant increase in drill music videos uploaded online. Many of the videos, which feature male rappers wearing face masks, using violent, provocative and nihilistic language, receive millions of views.

The most senior police officer in the UK, Commissioner Cressida Dick, has publicly criticised drill music videos, stating they are used to glamorise murder and serious violence and escalate tensions between rival street gangs.

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Many people disagree with the police blaming of drill music. Supporters of this music genre argue that murder and violence are not a new phenomena, and should not be considered causal to drill artists who rap about the harsh realities of their lived experiences. Some academics are also concerned that the current police approach “is leading to the criminalisation of everyday pursuits” and that “young people from poor backgrounds are now becoming categorised as troublemakers through the mere act of making a music video”.[…]

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