Psychologist Examines What A 'Rapid Evolution' In Policing Might Look Like
DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in today for Terry Gross. The conviction Tuesday of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd brought a measure of relief for those demanding accountability for Floyd's death. But the protest movement that arose last year wasn't just about Floyd's case. Activists are calling for fundamental reform in policing. Many advocate defunding police departments and putting more resources into social services. Our guest, Phillip Atiba Goff, is the co-founder and chief executive officer of the Center for Policing Equity, which collects data, does research and develops policy recommendations on race and policing, and works with local police departments to improve their practices.
Goff is a professor of African American studies and psychology at Yale University. He received his bachelor's degree from Harvard and Ph.D. in psychology from Stanford. He gained national recognition in the science of racial bias, with experiments showing how Blackness is often associated with crime among Americans. We recorded our interview midday Wednesday. Phillip Atiba Goff joined us from his home in New Haven, Conn.
Phillip Atiba Goff, welcome to FRESH AIR. We're speaking the day after the verdict in the trial of Derek Chauvin. He was convicted on all three counts. I guess I should begin by just asking your thoughts on the outcome of the trial and the meaning of this case.
PHILLIP ATIBA GOFF: So I get a lot of questions about what does it mean and where are we going all the time in the last year. And I've come to feel like the only responsible answer is, I don't know yet. It was a momentous case in that it was an opportunity for the country to see whether or not there would be accountability for a white officer who was responsible for killing a Black resident. In Minnesota, there had never been that kind of accountability before. Derek Chauvin is the first white officer to face accountability for being responsible for killing a Black person. But literally the hour that the verdict was read, there was a teenage Black girl in Columbus, Ohio. Reports differ as to whether or not she called police or police were called to the house for a disturbance. But she was armed with a knife, it seems, and ended up dead. There was no relief. This week, this year, has been relentless. And the outcome, the verdict in the trial, is better than the alternative, massively better, a huge relief. And also, it was just another Tuesday.
DAVIES: You know, you've spoken of a sort of origin story for the Center for Policing Equity that involves, I guess, contact with the police chief in Denver. You want to share that?
GOFF: Sure. So I am the co-founder of the Center for Policing Equity. I met my other co-founder at a conference that I was very tangentially helping my graduate mentor put on just after I had started as faculty - and walked into the place where everybody was having dinner. There are a bunch of terribly dressed academics, a bunch of law enforcement executives in uniform and then this well-dressed woman - far too well-dressed to be an academic but not in uniform - sitting at the back by herself. As an ambassador for the conference, I went to go and say hello. I asked, would you mind if I sat here? And she looked me up and down and said, I don't think you have the, shall we say, courage to do anything real with your life. She used more crass language than I think is appropriate for NPR. And I stuck out my hand. I said, thank you for dispelling my stereotype that all cops are arrogant jackasses.
(Laughter) And we began immediately to have a sibling-like relationship, where she challenged me to be a scientist whose work mattered in the world and described the world. And I challenged her to give access to law enforcement data, which, to that point, had been entirely unheard of, for researchers and scientists to be able to have access to the data that would be able to test whether or not what law enforcement was doing was, in fact, racially biased. We went out together to Denver. I got access to the data. We delivered that report. And from there, there was a rush of law enforcement executives who wanted to know.
DAVIES: And just to clarify, the person here was Tracie Keesee - right? - who was...
GOFF: That's correct.
DAVIES: She was the...
GOFF: Tracie Keesee is the co-founder. And she was the one who challenged my manhood very early on (laughter).
DAVIES: And she was the police chief in Denver or a high-ranking official?
GOFF: No. She was a commander rank.
GOFF: I think, technically, she was a lieutenant. But she was commander rank, which means that of the six sort of divisions in Denver, she was in charge of one of them.
DAVIES: All right. And her challenge to you was, let's see how you can make this work in the real world. And you've done that. But one of the challenges you note is that policing is very, very decentralized. This may be a national problem. But the solution tends to be local - right? - or the effort to seek solutions.
GOFF: Yeah. So it is a national problem. If you want to handle this the way that policing is handled, you have to handle it at the state and local level. There are very few direct federal levers for change. So even though we see today that the Department of Justice has announced a pattern-and-practice investigation - something, by the way, that was all but abandoned under the previous administration - if the...
DAVIES: That's an investigation of Minneapolis - right? - which is...
GOFF: Right, a pattern-and-practice investigation of Minneapolis. If the Department of Justice's special litigation unit, which is the unit that does the actual investigations, if it were increased by five times, they might be able to do 20 departments in a year. Now, 20 may sound like a lot. But there's 18,000, roughly, state and local law enforcement agencies across the country. So it's important. It sends a message. It signals our values. But it's not going to be the way out. I hesitated when you said, well, the solution has to be at the local level because I'm not sure that's really true.
Policing happens at the local level. And inflexions in policing absolutely have to be managed. And we need to listen to folks who are working at the local level. But the problem here isn't just policing, it's the degree to which this country is OK with throwing away people in vulnerable communities and the rate at which our collective logic is that there are bad people who deserve these kinds of outcomes. And that actually, I think, maybe is a national problem. It's just not one the federal government is set up to solve.
DAVIES: This is something that you've done research on, how people tend to associate Blackness with criminality?
GOFF: That's right. So both in the laboratory and in the world. And it doesn't take a Ph.D. to observe it. It just takes a Ph.D. to write really obscure articles that very few people read that technically proves it. So that's what we've done. And that's part of the way that the concept of implicit bias was popularized was literally translating it to law enforcement officers - right? - to police officers in the ways that they respond to laboratory studies and, eventually, the ways that they respond out in the world. But I'm talking about something a little bit more broad than that, not just the way that individual officers do it in the moment, the way that we do it as a country, the way that we have literally decided, hey; I see someone got shot. The next thing I need to know is, did they deserve it?
And we don't talk about it like that. We say, well, we would need to see the rest of the film. We need to understand the context. And that's not completely unreasonable. But if you listen to the conversations, what we're actually talking about is, maybe, the person who died deserved it. And that's almost the only conversation we're having, as opposed to what things could we have done so that regardless of what the person who is dead did, they could be alive. When we start having that conversation, I know that we will have moved from where we started. And that's the conversation I'm trying to push us to have.
DAVIES: You gave a TED Talk in which you - I don't want to misstate this. But you say there's a definition of racism which is about people's hearts and minds, which, at least in this context, is kind of the wrong approach. You want to explain this?
GOFF: Yeah. That's right. So like I said, I'm a social psychologist. I study how people think about how they think. And in this case, most people think that the problem of racism is - it's somehow a contaminated heart or a contaminated mind, right? So prejudice is a problem of character. It's a problem of ignorance. And those are things we should fight. Even in the last couple of weeks, people are saying we need to stamp out hate against Asian Americans. And I'm all for stamping out hate. But it turns out that generalized attitudes predict about 10% of behavior at best. And I don't know the last time I've seen any group of Black folks or brown folks or any other folks take to the street and protest wanting white people to love us more. That's not the thing. We're protesting the behaviors.
So if the goal is to change the behaviors and the theory is, well, to change the behavior, you got to change the attitude, I want to stage an intervention. I also want to pull what's left of my hair out because that's a bad way to stop the behavior. If you focus on the attitude, you're going to take about 10% of it out at best. The best way to regulate behavior is to regulate behavior. And that's what we can do in policing. That's what we can do in our communities. That's what we can do with policies. I want to orient us towards that and not have us distracted by trying to save the souls of potentially racist officers or white community members or anybody else. Let that be a project for art or friendship or a Sunday morning.
DAVIES: And so changing behavior starts with identifying it and measuring it, right?
GOFF: Yeah. I mean, anything that you want to do from an organizational level, you measure, and you hold people accountable to it. And yet somehow, when universities say we're committed to diversity, you can't ask them to tell you the metrics they're tracking. When corporations say, we're newly committed to the value of Black life - we saw it all summer long - and then when we look at their corporate boards, we look at their donations to politics, we look at everything that they want to measure, it has nothing to do with that statement. In this context, diversity and racial justice is a slogan and a value that's not backed up by behavior.
And you can tell that corporations or organizations aren't serious about it 'cause they measure literally everything else that they care about.
DAVIES: We need to take a break here. Let me reintroduce you. We are speaking with Phillip Atiba Goff. He is the co-founder and chief executive officer of the Center for Policing Equity. We'll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF DAN AUERBACH SONG, "HEARTBROKEN, IN DISREPAIR")
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And our guest is Phillip Atiba Goff. He is a professor of psychology and African American studies at Yale and is co-founder and CEO of the Center for Policing Equity, which does research and develops policy recommendations on race and policing.
So I want to talk a bit about what you've done in working with specific police departments to try and measure and change behavior. Berkeley, Calif., is one. You want to tell us what happened there?
GOFF: Sure. So I think it was Chief Greenwood at the time reached out and said, hey, we're looking for any way that we can be responsive to our community that says we're engaged in racially disparate policing. That's not our values. We want to do better. So we took a look at their data on use of force and on traffic stops, and it turns out their traffic stops were a big risk factor, unnecessary risk factor, such that low-level traffic stops were accounting for just an unnecessarily high number of use-of-force incidents.
So recently, in the aftermath of this past summer, when everybody was looking for the right way to go, the department said, you know what? We should really explore just not doing that, just ending having a badge and a gun be the response for a broken taillight. That now, of course, is a thing in the aftermath of Daunte Wright, where a number of folks are looking at it because Daunte Wright having been shot and killed, allegedly, according to the officer, as a mistake. There are a number of folks who don't buy that explanation. But the incident that led to it was just expired tags in Brooklyn Center, 10 miles north of where the George Floyd murder took place.
So if you don't have armed response to expired tags, Daunte Wright is 1,000% alive. Now, I keep hearing people say, oh, but we had warrants out, and I have to say, that doesn't matter for this. You know where somebody lives if they've got a warrant out. You can go serve them there. We see it happen all the time. The precipitating incident was expired tags. And if you take that away from law enforcement, you take away the incident where someone with a gun shot and killed someone.
DAVIES: I wonder...
GOFF: That's what Berkeley is doing.
GOFF: And that's, again, one of the things we hope will be scalable across the country.
DAVIES: Right. You know, I wonder - did the police department say, well, look; you know, there is value to doing this? I mean, like, Timothy McVeigh was captured fleeing the Oklahoma bombing because a highway patrolman saw him driving a car without a tag. Did the police department object here?
GOFF: So here the police department was both leading and responding to what communities were asking for, so no. The thing that was - that's maybe most surprising to me, as a Black man who grew up in Philadelphia and just outside in the burbs, I was shocked at the very beginning at how many law enforcement leaders actually agree with the vast majority of protesters' demands. They generally don't agree that they want their budgets cut, but getting them out of low-level enforcement, getting them out of substance abuse, out of homelessness, out of mental health, out of child welfare, they will say and have been saying for the last couple of decades, we can't possibly train our officers to be responsible responders there. Get us out. Stop asking us to do too much.
But if we stop asking them to do it, in a context of constrained budgets, it kind of does mean, maybe we're going to take some of that money and refund the community so that they can have folks who are appropriately trained for it. But it's not the case that this is the way that it gets portrayed on broadcast media all the time, where it's just one side really mad at the other side, and they have diametrically opposed positions, and no one wants to work with anybody else. Most law enforcements happen in small cities and towns, and most people know each other. In the big cities, it is different. But in most places, it's not as acrimonious as it might seem. It's just the way we think about doing it right, it needs rapid evolution.
DAVIES: Right. So this was approved in February, as I understand it, in Berkeley. So how does this - in the spirit of, well, let's see how all this functions in the real world, what's actually happening? Are they going to recruit and train a new cadre of unarmed traffic enforcement officers? What's - and does that reduce the number of police? How's it all working?
GOFF: So in Berkeley, like in so many places, they're still trying to figure that out. The logistics are still in process. So my understanding is that it's likely to be a combination of cameras that will scan license plates, and that means they'll send you a ticket. You thought you got away with it, and then two weeks later, you got a bill. They'll have unarmed folks who are responsive to some of the things that cameras can't manage. And they'll also just have big, bright flashing signs in the same way that, for anybody who's driven, the worst thing you see is the - those billboards or the roadside signs that flash your speed at you, right? You don't even want to slow down because you feel like you're driving appropriately, but it's flashing 'cause you're going too fast. It's a great behavior modifier.
And that brings back to mind the point that traffic enforcement, for the most part, is supposed to be so that people don't get hurt. And if you can change the behavior without punishing somebody, that's really OK - better than OK; it's good. So I don't know exactly what it's going to look like in Berkeley. I don't know exactly what it's going to look like in Long Island or in Ithaca, N.Y., where huge changes are happening. But I do know that what we've been doing doesn't work. The community is not going to put up with it. And these new innovations, some of them will be better, and we're going to be able to measure that, and then hopefully those things start to scale.
DAVIES: Well, let's talk about Ithaca, N.Y., where you worked with the department there. And as I understand it, the local government has decided to effectively replace the police department with the Department of Community Solutions and Public Safety, right?
GOFF: That's correct.
DAVIES: How is this going to work? How far has it gotten?
GOFF: So this is in response to Governor Cuomo's requirement that every municipality in the state of New York has a new plan for how they're going to manage public safety. And the folks in Ithaca and surrounding Tompkins County said, we don't want to do anything incremental; we want to do something as radical as the moment requires. So they asked us to come in to help facilitate a process. The first thing we needed to do was to help the community deal with the trauma of having gone through so many reform efforts previously that didn't produce the results they wanted.
Then we started hearing from people that were sort of the regulars, the people you'd expect, the usual suspects. And the folks in the city said, we need something bigger than that. So they went out, and they got the people who don't talk, who don't participate, and they said, we need to hear from you in this process. And on the other side of it, it was overwhelming that the way they had set this up, with an armed response to punish folks for the choices they make, within systems that only afford them terrible options, that was just a really perverse setup, right? These are folks who - mostly, the folks who are facing enforcement or facing police contact, these are folks who have the least money, the least opportunity, the least access to jobs and education, the least set of resources, and yet they're the most punished. That's blaming the victim on a structural level.
So what they said was, well, first of all, let's get armed responses out of every place they don't need to be because there is no confrontation that's deescalated by introducing a badge and a gun. And next, let's create space for the folks who can be good at that, right? Let's orient the entire process to a public health and a public safety orientation. And what that's going to mean is, instead of it being helmed by someone who has come up through the ranks in learning how to manage violence, we want it held by someone who can focus on public health and public safety. So it'll be led by a civilian. Instead of having majority armed responses to things, let's have majority unarmed responses to things. So when there's a mental health crisis that doesn't require an armed response, that's not immediately a threat of violence, let's send someone out who's good at doing that.
And the result was, yeah, community solutions to public safety is the right focus, so why didn't we just create that in the first place? And this is the part that I hope will be heard and legible to folks - the reason why they didn't do that in the first place, the reason why Ithaca's police department was not originally a Department of Community Solutions and Public Safety, for public safety, is because most law enforcement in this country was built at a time when regulating the movement of Black people was the chief responsibility. We never interrupted that process and said, yeah, we created these things for a terrible reason, let's scrap that and start from scratch, if we wanted to have actual equal rights in the country.
DAVIES: Let me reintroduce you. We are speaking with Phillip Atiba Goff. He is a professor of African American studies and psychology at Yale and is also the co-founder and CEO of the Center for Policing Equity, which does research and develops policy recommendations on race and policing. It also works with local police departments to improve their practices. He'll be back after this short break. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF DARRELL GRANT'S "FILS DU SOLEIL (FOR TONY WILLIAMS)")
DAVIES: In the wake of the verdict in the trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, we're talking about efforts to reform policing with Phillip Atiba Goff, co-founder and CEO of the Center for Policing Equity, which does research and develops policy recommendations on race and policing and works directly with local police departments to improve their practices. Goff is also a professor of African American studies and psychology at Yale University. When we left off, Goff was discussing the work his center did in Ithaca, N.Y., where the local government wanted to make radical changes in their police practices.
Now, in the case of Ithaca, I mean, this is just enacted. The implementation is mostly ahead of us. As I understand it, the police department, which has 60 some odd officers - the union representing them supported this. Is this right?
GOFF: So the plan had been amongst many in the community, we're going to make this plan, we're going to ratify it, and then there will be a lawsuit from the union because that's frequently what happens when there are large-scale changes to public safety. That was the assumption going through. The vote was going to be, I think, on a Tuesday night. And then Monday of the week the vote happened, the Police Benevolent Association came out and said these are the parts of the plan we agree with. And that was it.
They just said the parts of the plan they agreed with. They did not make a legal move. They essentially said, if you're going to go forward, here are the places where you're going to have our support, implying that the other places would be much more difficult. And I was shocked. I was floored. I thought I had read it wrong. I had to call three different people to make sure that I understood that this was right and not a misprint and not a prank because April 1 was coming, so I thought it could be an early April Fools' joke.
DAVIES: Have you at the Police Equity Center worked with the police union on this issue there? I mean, did you contact them, or did they contact you?
GOFF: So police executives were in the room for the vast majority of conversations. The police union was represented - Police Benevolent Association, I should say, was represented in those conversations. And because the Center for Policing Equity has retired law enforcement as a critical component to our staff, we had folks who knew how to speak their language.
But I can't say that this huge win of collaboration had very much to do with what CPE did at all. The community spoke up and said, if you are going to try and have any form of legitimacy in this place where you're supposed to do your job, you need to follow the voices of us. And there was so much buy-in from such a broad swath of the community and so much pressure from the electeds who saw an overwhelming support for this new plan that the PBA made the calculation, like it or not, we can either lead, or we can get dragged. And they decided they'd rather lead.
DAVIES: In this reimagining, will there be any armed force at all, or do we know? Is it clear?
GOFF: Yeah. So the plan has all 63 members of the Ithaca Police Department maintaining their jobs, but it also has an annual review of whether or not that's needed. So it creates the prospect for the community to say, we don't need this. You guys, we're going to transition you to something else, right? It is not what some activists would say is enough change. But it creates the conditions for a community to be literally in control of how many armed responders they need with tracking mechanisms to say how they're using armed responders. That's a huge difference and a huge inflection point at a time when we're in the midst of a murder spike. So folks are scared to get rid of law enforcement while there's so much of what we expect law enforcement to do still going on.
DAVIES: Right. I guess budgeting will be a question here, right? I mean, if you're going to keep all of the existing officers and expand, you know, the community solutions workers so that people with skills are out there and available 24 hours, it sounds like it will require a fiscal commitment by the city, too, right?
GOFF: Yeah, and that's a good thing because in this moment when we're talking about defunding the police, I think we forget that it was a much quieter movement to defund schools in Black and brown communities and to defund mental health and to defund jobs and to defund architecture and parks. We've defunded every darn public good where Black and brown people live, so much so that policing is usually the only public good that we find. So part of the movement right now in terms of how municipalities are working is from defund to refund. These are dollars that should have been going to the community in the first place to prevent the sets of things that have people calling 911.
DAVIES: You know, some people might be listening and thinking, well, Berkeley and Ithaca - I think of them as college towns, probably with a more progressive set of politicians and community activists. Can you talk about some places that you've done that aren't like that, you know, where you've worked with police departments?
GOFF: Sure. And I think that people's skepticism around the capacity for change in places like Berkeley and Ithaca - I think that's well warranted. It is easier because these are college towns. It's easier because they're smaller. And it's easier because there is not the kind of economic and racial diversity that causes the greatest kind of strife in municipal policymaking. I can't talk about the places where we're in the process of doing this because oftentimes sunlight just makes it harder.
But I will say that in places where we've worked like Las Vegas, they were concerned they were using force too often. They were rightly worried the community was going to send a letter to DOJ to have them investigated for a pattern of practice. And they came to us, and they said, hey, we think we're not doing something great. How can we change it? And so we looked at their data. Their data indicated that a disproportionate number of their use of force incidents were happening around foot pursuits. We asked them what their foot pursuit policy was. They said, we don't have one. We said, you probably should. But beyond that, they immediately recognized the risk of pursuit. In a foot pursuit, the person is running away. Most law enforcement thinks that's a bad guy because nobody runs from law enforcement except for the bad guys. They also have their adrenaline up, their heart rate up - right? - and they're sweating, especially in Las Vegas summer.
Now, the person who's running away might turn around, put their hands up, and say, please don't hurt me. But with my adrenaline that high, you're getting a punch to the kidneys for the price of making me run. And so what they immediately recognized and what the community recognized as well is that just by slowing down, by counting to 10 the way you learn in anger management or marriage counseling or by just not touching the person, if you were the first person on scene, you could reduce the likelihood that this devolves into a use-of-force incident. The result was a 23% reduction in police use of force the following year. And that became a model for experience-led training in law enforcement nationwide - obviously not good enough, but a little bit of a bright spot during a period of time when there was almost no movement around these issues.
DAVIES: This may be a loaded question, but do you find working with police chiefs who are African American or people of color is a different experience from those who are white?
GOFF: It is a loaded question, but I think it's a fair one to ask. My experience in working with any of the chiefs that we work with, they all called us. They all - either the community called us and the chief said, yeah, we want to have this conversation, or they called us directly. So they all understand there's something urgent going on. But for the Black chiefs, for the Latinx chiefs, for the women chiefs, they also at some point in time during the process will share, here's what I went through coming up. It wasn't OK. I had to sue, as the case was for the chief of Minneapolis. I had to swallow it. I had a hard time with my family around it. I had a hard time going home to my community. And that absolutely informs the urgency, how personal it is and the depth of their commitment when things start getting hard.
DAVIES: You say they had to sue. Meaning what? Sue what?
GOFF: So literally, I mean, the chief in Minneapolis sued the police department for racial discrimination and won, before he was chief. That is not an uncommon experience among folks that we engage at the senior ranks in law enforcement. I hope that people understand that as difficult, as fraught as our conversations around law enforcement are and should be, you got Black and Latinx officers who are screaming bloody murder from inside. The union does not represent them to the way that they want to be represented, and they have to go home to the communities that are crying out in pain.
That is, whatever else you want to think about it, an incredibly difficult personal situation to be in. And even if you say, well, just quit the job, there are folks who've decided that it's their duty to change this thing from inside, even some who say, it's time to tear it down from the inside. That's the kind of stuff that we hear about regularly when we're talking with law enforcement.
DAVIES: We need to take another break here. Let me reintroduce you. Phillip Atiba Goff is a professor of psychology and African American studies at Yale and CEO of the Center for Policing Equity, which does research and develops policy recommendations on race and policing. We'll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF PHIL KEAGGY AND HOLT VAUGHN'S "BITTER SUITE")
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we're speaking with Phillip Atiba Goff. He's a professor of African American studies and psychology at Yale, and he is also co-founder and chief executive officer of the Center for Policing Equity, which does research and develops policy recommendations on race and policing and works directly with local police departments to improve their practices.
Besides working on policy and working with departments for change, you've established a national database on police use of force with, I guess, some other partners - I mean, the National Science Foundation, among others. You want to describe what kind of data you've collected?
GOFF: Yeah, so it's not just police use of force. The National Justice Database is the largest collection of police behavioral information in the world, which is a super humble brag. What we have are data on police use of force, pedestrian stops, vehicle stops. Oftentimes we'll get information on complaints. And then we also have, from those same departments, many times, information on how they keep track of crime and arrests. It is an embarrassment that we've been tracking things like crime in such a terrible way. It is a humiliation, nationally, that we've not been tracking officer behavior - literally, what police officers do.
The goal is both to advance basic science in this area, to understand where, when and how racial disparities are produced by police. But also, it allows us to give back to communities indicators of how much of that problem is driven by police behavior and police policies and how much of it is jobs, how much of it is the lack of investment in mental health and in education, 'cause there's no community in the country whose only problem is police. And sometimes police show up because of the failures in other systems, and these data help us to answer those kinds of questions.
DAVIES: Without getting too wonky here, I'm just imagining how you collect this data. I mean, there are 18,000 different law enforcement agencies (laughter).
GOFF: Yeah. Doing it one by one is slow (laughter). And yet that's how we've done it for the better part of the last decade. The way we do it is, when we're working with a police department and a community, we ask for all of those data, they give it to us, and then we've had some engineers from google.org who came in and helped us to automate the auditing, the cleaning and the standardization of those data so that we can analyze them. The bad news - 18,000 police departments across the United States, roughly speaking, 75% percent of them, 25 officers or fewer; a thousand of them, just one dude. Those folks don't have data systems; they have whatever Willie (ph) put in the drawer last week.
So the good news is there's a small number of departments that are the vast majority of police community contacts. So when we're working with departments, they're usually relatively larger, and so together with the publicly available data, we've got about a third of the U.S. by population just from scraping and the data that gets handed over to us by our partners.
DAVIES: So what has surprised you about what the data revealed?
GOFF: The first thing that I think is surprising is the range, the variance. And what I mean by that, again, not to be too wonky, is there are some cities where, when we control for things like the demographics of a neighborhood and the crime or arrest rate, we see 16, 17, 18 times more contact, 18 times, 20 times more use of force towards Black folks than towards white folks in the city. And there are other places where, when we control for those things, it's 1 1/2 times, two times. Still not good. There's no city where we see no disparities, even when controlling for those variables. But it's a huge differential.
And it's not the way that you would think it would be. It's not that the most progressive cities or most progressive departments are doing the best; it is really idiosyncratic to the historical culture of that one place place. That's the first thing that kind of grabs my attention and makes me realize, sometimes, you have to do science because all the things you think you know, you don't.
DAVIES: The Center for Policing Equity has a policy paper called "Guiding Principles For Crowd Management." There've been a lot of protests over the past year, which departments have handled, arguably, quite poorly. Have you worked with departments on this?
GOFF: We have. And it started as a project because of the uprisings and rebellions from this summer. And it's become - it started super nuanced and became way more rough grain since then. The super nuanced version of this are particular tactics that should be employed and avoided when engaging in crowd management. Since then, we've essentially said, OK, please, do away with tear gas. Do away with the kettling. All the things that escalate anything, just don't do that. And if you got to show up, try and make sure that you prioritize people over property. And because of the shift in national mood and national attitudes around this, we went from a few departments being really interested to many departments being deeply interested in how to just not make everything worse.
DAVIES: Before we let you go, you know, you have an artistic side. You were part of a hip-hop group years back. And I recently read that you joined in a multi-year creative partnership with Warner Brothers Television. I don't know how much you want to say about this. But what do you think you'll be doing? What's your goal?
GOFF: So the new initiative, which is called JusticeRx, the goal of it is to finish the jobs that I'm doing at Yale and at the Center for Policing Equity. When I was a high school student, I had a drama instructor, a drama teacher. And she only really gave one note. And that's not (laughter) a criticism at all. She said, tell the story over and over, and over, and over. Make it clear. The audience needs to understand. Tell the story. That's why I'm an educator. It's why I'm a researcher and a scientist. It's why and how we do interventions.
Throughout this entire conversation, what have I been saying to you? We can give back to communities the information that they need so that they can do what they have to do. But the issue is not just at the local level, the state level, the federal level. It's literally in the stories that we tell about ourselves. So the mission of JusticeRx is to un-tell the lies that we tell about ourselves because that's part of what I've been trying to do in the rest of my career. And it turns out, very few people will tune into Week 7's lecture on implicit bias...
GOFF: ...Even when I'm giving it in my absolute theatrical best. So if storytelling has to be part of the intervention to take us from where we are to where we're going, I was offered an opportunity to do that at a large scale. I was really excited to make that happen and especially to have a team that can execute on that with me.
DAVIES: So you think you'll be advising on scripts, proposing new series? Do you know (laughter)?
GOFF: Yeah. So the project involves working with creative executives on the culture of Hollywood, working on specific projects, on bending the story arcs towards justice, and also creating a pipeline for new storytellers to tell their stories of the ways in which the histories, structures and power orientations of this country impact on individual lives. Forgive me for being a little bit professorial with it. But when I watch television and when I look at movies, it's pretty easy for me to tell what genre I'm watching. If there is an attractive young woman who falls down and embarrasses herself in front of an attractive young man, those two are going to end up married at the end because I'm watching a rom-com, and that was just a meet-cute.
Genre does a lot of the work of storytelling. We have the background information. They don't have to tell us. And we have a genre for telling stories about white people. We don't have a genre for vulnerable populations, not nearly enough of one, which means that we don't understand the history, structure and power that act on each of their lives. How much better could we be as a nation if we did, if the only genre available wasn't just whiteness? So that's the hope. That's the project in all the things that we do.
DAVIES: Well, Phillip Atiba Goff, thank you so much for speaking with us.
GOFF: Thanks for having me.
DAVIES: Phillip Atiba Goff is the professor of psychology and African American studies at Yale and CEO of the Center for Policing Equity, which works with local police departments to improve their practices. Coming up, Maureen Corrigan reviews a short Italian novel about a newly widowed woman who finds comfort in her relationship with a chicken. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF BEBO VALDES TRIO'S "LAMENTO CUBANO")
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.