As many thoughtful people have pointed out already, Eric Garner’s case proves that video evidence is not a magic bullet to combat and punish undue police brutality. The Grand Jury deemed such evidence insufficient for an indictment, even if the average person watching the video cannot understand that point of view.
Even so, it would be a mistake to dismiss video cameras on police as entirely a bad idea. We shouldn’t assume no progress could be made simply because there’s an example which lets us down. I am no data evangelist, but neither am I someone who dismisses data. It can be powerful and we should use its power when we can.
And before I try to make the general case for video cameras on cops, let me make one other point. The Eric Garner video has already made progress in one arena, namely public opinion. Without the video, we wouldn’t be seeing nationwide marches protesting the outrageous police conduct.
A few of my data nerd thoughts:
- If cops were required to wear cameras, we’d have more data. We should think of that as building evidence, with the potential to use it to sway grand juries, criminal juries, judges, or public opinion.
- One thing I said time after time to my students this summer at the data journalism program I directed is the following: a number by itself is usually meaningless. What we need is to compare that number to a baseline. The baseline could be the average number for a population, or the median, or some range of 5th to 95th percentiles, or how it’s changed over time, or whatnot. But in order to gauge any baseline you need data.
- So in the case of police videotapes, we’d need to see how cops usually handle a situation, or how cops from other precincts handle similar situations, or the extremes of procedures in such situations, or how police have changed their procedures over time. And if we think the entire approach is heavy handed, we can also compare the data to the police manual, or to other countries, or what have you. More data is better for understanding aggregate approaches, and aggregate understanding makes it easier to fit a given situation into context.
- Finally, the cameras might also change their behavior when they are policing, knowing they are being taped. That’s believable but we shouldn’t depend on it.
- And also, we have to be super careful about how we use video evidence, and make sure it isn’t incredibly biased due to careful and unfair selectivity by the police. So, some cops are getting in trouble for turning off their cameras at critical moments, or not turning them on ever.
Let’s take a step back and think about how large-scale data collection and mining works, for example in online advertising. A marketer collects a bunch of data. And knowing a lot about one person doesn’t necessarily help them, but if they know a lot about most people, it statistically speaking does help them sell stuff. A given person might not be in the mood to buy, or might be broke, but if you dangle desirable good in front of a whole slew of people, you make sales. It’s a statistical play which, generally speaking, works.
In this case, we are the marketer, and the police are the customers. We want a lot of information about how they do their job so when the time comes we have some sense of “normal police behavior” and something to compare a given incident to or a given cop to. We want to see how they do or don’t try to negotiate peace, and with whom. We want to see the many examples of good and great policing as well as the few examples of terrible, escalating policing.
Taking another step back, if the above analogy seems weird, there’s a reason for that. In general data is being collected on the powerless, on the consumers, on the citizens, or the job applicants, and we should be pushing for more and better data to be collected instead on the powerful, on the police, on the corporations, and on the politicians. There’s a reason there is a burgeoning privacy industry for rich and powerful people.
For example, we want to know how many people have been killed by the police, but even a statistic that important is incredibly hard to come by (see this and this for more on that issue). However, it’s never been easier for the police to collect data on us and act on suspicions of troublemakers, however that is defined.
Another example – possibly the most extreme example of all – comes this very week from the reports on the CIA and torture. That is data and evidence we should have gotten much earlier, and as the New York Times demands, we should be able to watch videos of waterboarding and decide for ourselves whether it constitutes torture.
So yes, let’s have video cameras on every cop. It is not a panacea, and we should not expect it to solve our problems over night. In fact video evidence, by itself, will not solve any problem. We should think it as a mere evidence collecting device, and use it in the public discussion of how the most powerful among us treat the least powerful. But more evidence is better.
Finally, there’s the very real question of who will have access to the video footage, and whether the public will be allowed to see it at all. It’s a tough question, which will take a while to sort out (FOIL requests!), but until then, everyone should know that it is perfectly legal to videotape police in every place in this country. So go ahead and make a video with your camera when you suspect weird behavior.
At the end of this week I’ll be heading up to Montreal to attend and participate in a one-day workshop called Fairness, Accountability, and Transparency in Machine Learning (FATML), as part of a larger machine learning conference called NIPS. It’s being organized by Solon Barocas and Moritz Hardt, who kindly put me on the closing panel of the day with Rayid Ghani, who among other things runs the Data Science for Social Good Summer Fellowship out of the University of Chicago, and Foster Provost, an NYU professor of Computer Science and the Stern School of Business.
On the panel, we will be discussing examples of data driven projects and decisions where fairness, accountability, and transparency came into play, or should have. I’ve got lots!
When I get back from Montreal, late on Saturday morning, I’m hoping to have the chance to make my way over to Washington Square Park at 2pm to catch a large Eric Garner protest. It’s actually a satellite protest from Washington D.C. called for by Rev. Al Sharpton and described as “National March Against Police Violence”. Here’s what I grabbed off twitter:
It’s pretty hard to find solace in the Eric Garner situation, but since I have been thinking almost exclusively about this stuff, and since by nature I don’t like to be consistently hopeless (it’s too exhausting), I have come up with some positive thinking around it.
Namely, basically what Chris Rock has been saying: it’s exposing white progress, and it’s been a long time coming. The number of Facebook friends I have, who are very comfortably upper middle class and white, and who are outspoken, ashamed, and disgraced by the Eric Garner decision is meaningful. The protests are widespread and are multiracial. It is not a black person’s problem anymore.
In my Occupy group, which meets weekly on Sunday afternoons, we’ve been talking a lot about white privilege, and whether that phrase is appropriate, and whether we can come up with a better one. Because for the most part, “white privilege” really refers to the rights white people have, which everyone should have, but which not everyone has.
For example, it is my white privilege not to worry about my three sons getting shot by the police. But that’s not a privilege, it’s a right. I’m entitled to that security. Everyone is, but not everyone gets to have it. Maybe we should call it “white entitlement.”
[There’s a problem with that name too, of course, which is that the Republicans stole the word “entitlement” away from us and made it a dirty word. So, Social Security is an “entitlement”, for example, which we should maybe be ashamed of. But not really, since we pay for it. So we should take that word back anyway, so let’s just kill two birds with one stone.]
But every now and then “privilege” is exactly appropriate, and no better examples exist than what we are now seeing on Twitter under the hashtag #crimingwhilewhite, which was also covered in the Times. Examples:
So yeah, white progress. I’m looking for a way to be proud to live in this country, and white progress might be the way I can do it.
This is all I got this morning:
It’s not the first time this issue has come up recently; the NPR investigations into court fees from last May, called Guilty and Charged, led to a bunch of reports on issues similar to this. Probably the closest is the one entitled Unpaid Court Fees Land The Poor In 21st Century Debtors’ Prisons.
A few comments:
- Ferguson is now famous for having a basically white police force patrolling a basically black populace. But it also has this fines-and-fees-and-jails problem: fines and fees associated to mostly traffic violations accounted for 21% of the city’s budget in 2013. And there were more arrest warrants than people in Ferguson last year, mostly for non-violent offenses.
- But the debtors’ prison problem isn’t just a racial issue. The people profiled in the above video were white, which could have been a documentarian’s decision, but in any case is a fact: the poverty-to-prison system is screwing all poor people, not just minorities. This is in spite of the fact that the Supreme Court found it unconstitutional in the landmark 1983 case, Bearden v. Georgia.
- This sense that “everyone is screwed” creates solidarity among poor whites and poor blacks, and especially young people. The Ferguson protests have been multi-racial, for example. And if you’ve read The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander, you’ll recognize a historical pattern whereby political change happens when poor whites and poor blacks start working together.
- One interesting and scary question to emerge from the above stories is, how did so many fees and fines get attached to low-level misdemeanors in the first place? It seems like privatized probation and prison companies have a lot to do with it.
- In some cases, they are putting people in jail for days and weeks, which costs the government hundreds of dollars, in order to capture a small fee. That makes no sense.
- In other cases, the fees accumulate so fast that the poor person who committed the misdemeanor ends up being responsible for an outrageous amount of money, far surpassing the scale of the original misdeed, and all because they are poor. That also makes no sense.
- It’s not just for prisons either; all sorts of functions that we consider governmental functions have been privatized, like health and human services: child welfare services, homeless services, half-way houses, and more.
- In the worst cases, the original intent of the agency (“putting people on probation so they don’t have to be in jail”) has been perverted into an entirely different beast (“putting them in jail because they can’t pay their daily $35 probation fees”). The question we’d like to investigate further is, how did that happen and why?
There has been lots of advice lately on how to have a civil conversation at Thanksgiving – NPR ran a piece yesterday on “topics both Democrats and Republicans enjoy”, for example, which made me slightly annoyed and amused – perhaps because I am neither – and inspired this somewhat alternative list of ways to enjoy or otherwise ignore your family today.
- Football, obviously. Few people actually know the rules of this game, never mind the names of the various positions of the players on the field. I personally have been watching football for more than 20 years and I still really don’t know what a tackle or a tight end is, nor exactly how to recognize a blitz. No matter, that’s not the point. The point is to choose a team and root for them blindly. Ignore the long-term brain damage.
- If you don’t like football, may I suggest An Idiot Abroad, a ridiculous travel show from Britain created by Ricky Gervais. It’s embarrassing and awkward, obv, so relative to those situations dinner with your family will seem seamless and well-meaning. I say this even though The Office, also developed by Ricky Gervais, was on NPR’s list. Also, having a The Office marathon is really not a bad idea either.
- Drinking. Adults can go for beer and spiked eggnog, but kids can get totally spaced out with just the normal eggnog. I’ve seen it before, it has a crazy high, especially if you add nutmeg. Buy tons.
- The above suggestions should keep you busy up to and including the beginning of dinner. Be sure you don’t actually talk before dinner, because then you’d run out of things to say during the eating part.
- For the actual dinner conversation, may I suggest keeping things light. For example, I plan to provoke a fun-loving conversation on who thinks the Ferguson grand jury’s lack of indictment serves justice and who thinks it exposes a broken system. It comes down to who trusts the system and who the system works for.
- If that seems awkward, move on to white privilege in general. If there’s a denier at the table, throw out some data: black teenagers are 21 times more likely to be killed by a cop than white teenagers, for example, or if that seems hyperbolic, move on to the social mobility matrices for blacks versus whites in Figures 8 and 9 of the appendix of this paper. Nice and aggregate. I plan to use a projector.
- Hahaha, just kidding! We don’t want to scare the kids. Instead, we’ll stick to the usual, where we enormously overconsume and simultaneously discuss upcoming diet plans, and/or vivaciously and competitively plan our impending holiday shopping whilst worrying about money.
- For a nice surprise, sign up your whole family for spots on the bus to participate in a Black Friday Walmart protest tomorrow morning in North Bergen, New Jersey. Bus leaves at 8am. Come one, come all!
For the sake of the essay, we coined the term “marble columns” to mean the opposite of “broken windows.” Instead of getting arrested for nothing, you never get arrested, as long as you work at a company with marble columns. For more, take a look at the whole piece!
Also, my good friend and bandmate Tom Adams (our band, the Tomtown Ramblers, is named after him) will be covering for me on mathbabe for the next few days while I’m away in Haiti. Please make him feel welcome!