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Taking On Racial Profiling With Data


One year ago, social psychologist Philip Atiba Goff started an unprecedented project to create a national database on racial profiling.

PHILIP ATIBA GOFF: Since there are no national data on basic police behavior, like stops and use of force, this is going to be the first one that puts out together in any way that will allow us to start getting at the root causes of the disparities that we observe.

RATH: Goff is the cofounder and president of the Center for Policing Equity at UCLA. He started the research at the request of police chiefs around the country. In the last year, more than 50 police departments have signed on. And with recent police killings, public interest in this kind of information has grown stronger. It's a three-year project. He hopes that by next year, he'll have data on the largest urban law enforcement centers. The research could help inform the conversations and disputes that come up between police and communities.

GOFF: Whenever communities feel as if they're being poorly treated, they say, you're arresting too many, you're stopping too many, you're using too much force. And law enforcement's most frequent retort is, we're responding to the situation on the ground. That's with the community needs. That's what the community asks for. And you can't really say, well, your policy is having an adverse effect because there's not a lot of data to compare it against. Well, what the database will allow us to do is to compare things - policies from one city to another city, from 10 cities to the other 10 cities - and get a sense of whether or not the policy, in and of itself, seems to be producing disparate outcomes. And if it is, then you have to take a look at the policy.

RATH: So can you talk about how you do that because in addition to this database, you are working with police departments, including in the Bay Area and St. Louis County, where there have been controversial police shootings? So that's the big question. What be done to solve the problem?

GOFF: Well, it depends on why we're brought in. I wish that we had some things that we could take off the shelf and just say, here, take a couple of drops of these. Call me in the morning. There should be less racism, but doesn't quite work like that. But the general principles is this - we work backwards from objectionable or troubling behavior, try and find the roots of that to the best of our ability and then create policies, trainings and accountability that will reduce those kinds of behaviors.

So for example, if we see that there's a large disparity in stops - a racial disparity in stops, that does not indicate in any way that law enforcement are to blame for those disparities. But it sure as heck means that if we've got a big red flag, we want to do something about it. So we've started the disparity, and then we say, what are the things that we know cause it? And the things that do belong to law enforcement - if it's law enforcement attitudes, if it's law-enforcement policies that are contributing to a racial disparity in police behavior, well, we want to fix that. And in one place, it'll be about hiring. In another place, it'll be about stops, and another - use of force. And some places, we'll combine them all together.

RATH: You know, Phillip, there are going to be people listening to this conversation who think that we're starting from a faulty promise here - that if you fly right, if you obey the law, you don't have to be worried about being profiled. It's not an issue in that way. What would you say?

GOFF: Yeah, I get that. I have heard that. I see it. I hear it from law enforcement. I hear it from folks in the community. It's just not true. It might have been true for you in your life, for you who never got drunk before it was legal, who never drove too fast, never got into any mischief 'cause you thought it was a good idea when you were too young to know better.

But the vast majority of human beings are not that way. And the vast majority of human beings get to continue making youthful mistakes, making some mistakes well into adulthood without having to worry that the rest of their lives are going to be marked by criminality and incarceration and possibly even by death at the hands of the state. So you can say, in one case, they should've complied. In one case, they shouldn't have been selling this. They shouldn't have been buying that.

But the point is not that the person was perfect. The point is they wouldn't have been treated that way if they were from a different community or they looked a different way. And the statistics on it are overwhelming. So we should stop focusing on just the individual case, and we should begin expanding to do we want the way the criminal justice system looks to be reflective of our values? Or do we want it to look how it does right now?

RATH: Phillip Atiba Goff is the cofounder and president of the Center for Policing Equity at the University of California Los Angeles. Phillip, thanks very much.

GOFF: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.