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Justice Needs Nerds

This is a guest post by Phil Goff, the inaugural Franklin A. Thomas Professor in Policing Equity at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. He is the co-founder and president of the Center for Policing Equity, and an expert in contemporary forms of racial bias and discrimination, as well as the intersections of race and gender.

On November 9, 2016, the world of police accountability shifted dramatically. Though the Movement for Black Lives and local engagement in police reform did not end, the drastic change to the political landscape left many who supported those fights in shock. And as the first 100 days of the new Administration are now behind us, the ways in which this Administration has already changed the trajectory of criminal justice reform and other aligned civil liberties is discouraging. From the appointment of Jeff Sessions to Attorney General to his order to review existing DOJ grants, investigations, and consent decrees, many are expecting both an evaporating role of federal government in police accountability and an expanding role for it in immigration and surveillance activities that run antithetical to public safety and fairness.

The retreat from principles of safety and justice hurts me, too. But I don’t despair. That’s at least in part because I’m a professional JusticeNerd™ (in addition to being one in my spare time). My job is to build more and better protections for civil rights through science. So, while the picture at the federal level is not inspiring, the rest of the landscape is. Specifically, recent commitments from philanthropy and tech giants like Google bring the promise of accountability through data metrics closer than it was before the election. Here’s what I mean:

When the crisis of public trust in police began, we had no national data on police behavior. Nothing on stops. Nothing on use of force. Nothing on policies. Nothing on officer psychological profiles. Nothing. And without metrics, the job of holding police accountable is nigh impossible.

But unbeknownst to many, police chiefs were already organizing to fix that. Yes. Police chiefs. At a conference my organization, the Center for Policing Equity (CPE), co-hosted with DOJ, representatives from 36 of the largest police departments called for a national database where stops and use of force could be standardized, compared, and mined for insights about racial disparities. They wanted answers to their questions about how “bad” their disparities were—and what they could do to fix them. As a result, CPE won a million-dollar grant from the National Science Foundation, and we began constructing the National Justice Database (NJD), the first and still the largest standardized database of police officer behavior. The NJD also collects data on officer psychological orientations (including implicit bias), providing a unique opportunity to study the roots of racial disparities in policing.

But the database was not ready when the crisis hit. We were still putting together the infrastructure. Still adding departments. So, when the crisis hit, first in Ferguson, then in Baltimore, New York, Minneapolis, Baton Rouge, and Charlotte, we had fewer answers than questions. Still, like the JusticeNerds™ we are, we persisted.

The past 5 years have been labor intensive, with data extraction, cleaning, standardization, and analysis taking months for each department. With those months of effort came valuable insights about the right metrics to use for identifying racial disparities that were rooted in broader racial inequality (e.g., employment, education, or housing disparities) as opposed to police policies, psychologies, or behaviors. The metrics represent the ability to hold police accountable to the values of equality we should all share. And, with voluntary commitments from departments that cover around one-third of the United States by population—with so much enthusiasm among police and communities—I was already optimistic about where things were headed.

Then, recently, Google came into the picture, and my optimism soared. Along with a $5 million commitment, Google did what we most needed: pledged to help us automate the processes of data extraction, cleaning, standardization, and analysis. This means that the months-long slog of putting a report together for each department is likely to turn into a matter of hours or days. And that means that there will no longer be any reasonable excuse for a department who collects data on any of these factors to say they don’t know what they mean.

What CPE—and the field—needs now are analysts. Lots and lots of analysts. And we, at least, are hiring DataNerds who want to be JusticeNerds™. With departments now coming in by the state-load, we are inundated with confidential data that needs to be interrogated so that we can answer some of the most fundamental questions in policing like: what economic conditions predict racial disparities in police stops? When does housing segregation most influence police activity? And, how do race and gender intersect in predicting police use of force?

Doing this work is exciting. It’s energizing. And, most importantly, it staves off the temptation to despair when it seems that progress is in retreat. So, even if policing isn’t your thing, my goal in writing this is to encourage folks to consider being a professional JusticeNerd™, regardless (in addition to being a nerd in your spare time). Because my hope is that the JusticeNerds™ who have not yet connected to this work professionally have also not given up on it. I hope that as more folks who feel passionately about social justice—and geek out over data architecture and social science—think about how they want to make their money, that they will work to find employment at the intersections of tech and justice. Or that they will create those opportunities.

Our country needs professional JusticeNerds™, and we are in short supply. My colleagues at the Vera Institute, Measures for Justice, the PICO Network, the National Network for Safe Communities, PolicyLink, Urban Institute, the Police Foundation, as well as at CPE are almost constantly in need of a diverse array of the most creative and committed folks. Folks who may have felt dispirited, but who are willing to fight despair as a vocation. So, if you feel like I’ve been talking directly to you (or to someone you know), you’re probably right. And if you are looking to make your passions your fulltime gig, please do. The whole field is hiring. And the whole country needs us to.

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. clifh
    May 3, 2017 at 10:19 am

    Perhaps Google, JusticeNerds, and other white hat data hackers can circumvent the political road blocks fostered by lobbyist that prevent the Federal government from testing/policing/regulating WMDs (as defined by Cathy O’Neil). Federal restrictions on funding of gun violence research comes to mind as example.

    Like

  2. May 4, 2017 at 5:35 pm

    Northeastern University Data Science students may be able to help you fill the pipeline.

    Like

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