Opinion Rights

Weighing the Pros and Cons of the Justice Database

Rama, Wikimedia Commons; tec_estromberg, flickr
Written by Vera Wilde

A spate of high-profile police killings of unarmed black and brown men and boys has sparked national protests. But leading criminal justice researchers’ response fails to contextualize the deaths — or own up to scientists’ own biases.

The Justice Database — funded by the National Science Foundation, Open Society Foundations, the Atlantic Philanthropies, W.K. Kellogg Foundation, and Russell Sage Foundation — is an effort to improve national, standardized data collection and sharing about police profiling and brutality. I was the National Science Foundation Postdoctoral Scholar on the project for over a year. So I know something about the project.

The Center for Policing Equity (CPE) is the organization that runs the Database. CPE claims a majority of major city police departments have signed on to participate. But that’s just departments that have expressed interest, not departments that have actually signed a Memorandum of Understanding. (My last count was zero.) CPE also claims the Database will produce the nation’s first data on police behavior, even though the Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics has collected national police behavior data for years.

We are missing a national database on deaths in police custody. That database is important for self-evident reasons including the sanctity of life and the police mission of protecting it. Law enforcement leadership could address that problem — along with others — by partnering with an existing policing software partner like Palantir to create a national database that solves some of their existing interoperability problems at the same time.

The only incentive to have a middle-man is that CPE is offering to do the work for free. But that might not be such a good idea for police.

Five Reasons the Justice Database is a Bad Idea

  1. Black death in America comes predominantly from different sources than police violence. We should address those first to save more lives.

Almost 55,000 Americans die annually from air pollution. Over 41,000 from suicideAbout 30,000 each from car accidents and falls. About 16,000 each from prescription painkiller overdose and homicide. And we might top 1,000 for police killings this year.

Racial and racialized socio-economic disparities affect almost all causes of death in the U.S. So going after the biggest killers by the numbers using common-sense policies like gun control will save a lot more lives — black and blue — than going after more police data, by at least an order of magnitude.

  1. The science on the implicit racial bias that is so hot right now does not seem to replicate very well. That is bad news for people working at the front lines of inequality.

A recent replication movement is challenging some accepted social psychology findings. In particular, implicit racial bias studies — studies that use latent response time measurements to get at unconscious associations — might not hold up. How often and why is a subject of ongoing controversy. Publication bias historically haunts social science.

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This is bad news for people working at the front lines of inequality — like police — because implicit bias has provided a convenient excuse for racial disparities that doesn’t blame anyone for prejudice. Those disparities are endemic, perhaps because we never fixed racialized socio-economic segregation. And they start early, traumatizing kids. So, the most visible actors in long chains of social injustice — that’s law enforcement in inner cities — might be the easiest to blame, but (among) the least culpable when it comes to the underlying causes of disparate racial outcomes in America today. Explaining that without falling back on implicit bias research requires considering a range of social, economic, and historical variables. And that’s a harder alternative story to the prejudice narrative to tell on the evening news.

  1. Data on data-driven, “cops on dots” policing suggest cops hate it and citizens suffer.

The Database assumes procedural justice — conceived as perception of fair application of rules — fixes the community mistrust that undercuts policing. But some evidence suggests that policing by the book is less fun for everyone.

It may seem counter-intuitive, but following the rules better doesn’t always lead to better outcomes. Police understand this from experience. For example, in Nevada, they don’t have a system for assessing racial disparities in police stops. They don’t count.

For a while, the state legislature said they had to count. To do that, they had to fill out a form that they didn’t have to fill out before. Traffic law enforcement decreased, and community perceptions of racial disparities didn’t budge. Police hated the form so much they stopped pulling people over to avoid having to fill it out. This is a form of depolicing, and it’s dangerous.

There are lots of other examples of data-driven policing — “cops on dots” — initiatives like CompStat degrading instead of promoting better policing practices. Report downgrading and other forms of number fixing to improve complaint numbers has been a running problem.

  1. Increased risks to police and citizens stemming from increased potential to access interoperable police systems.

Privacy experts in Europe, where law enforcement are way ahead of their U.S. counterparts, making databases interoperable — structuring systems so that they can talk across agencies, for example — warn that interoperable police systems could be unlawfully accessed. This is true for existing police databases. But a big, centralized database makes a juicier target. More data means more incentive to hack. More incentive to hack when people are angry enough to target police for killing is bad.

  1. Failure to address perceived lawlessness in law enforcement with national interrogation reform that includes the federal level jeopardizes national security.

The domestic mistrust spiral between communities of color and law enforcement is interlocked with the international mistrust spiral between Islamists and humanists. That comes out in diverse data points like the spike in ISIS recruitment following the Homan Square revelations of torture at a Chicago black site this winter, and the feds’ surveillance and killing of Usaama Rahim in Boston this summer. (The latter of which also illustrates an important point: If you’re under surveillance and threat, and somebody offers you a knife — don’t take it. Try a tactical pen instead.)

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Pulling out of this mistrust spiral, lest it ignite the powder keg of the largest global refugee crisis since World War II, will require telling the truth about torture and holding the powerful accountable for breaking the law. Worldwide displacement is at an all-time high of nearly 60 million. Many refugees are displaced because of violence that relates to U.S. foreign policy, such as that 2003 Iraq invasion. And we are not doing our part to help them, much less to assure the world we have reestablished rule of law after repeatedly violating it.

We know from evidence-based procedural justice research that perceptions of fairness promote the trust that underpins cooperation with law enforcement. If we do not give the world a big, visible reason to believe that American security forces themselves follow the law they are sworn to uphold, we let lie the mistrust that jeopardizes global security.

This is a multi-part article


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About the author

Vera Wilde

Reformed Harvard Kennedy Fellow, wondering artist, wandering artist. www.wildethinks.com

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Weighing the Pros and Cons of the Justice Database

by Vera Wilde
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