Will Obama’s Interim Progress Report make a difference in the numbers of unarmed black men and women killed at the hands of police officers?
Recent developments in data science, tracking, and analysis have made the prospect of keeping closer tabs on law enforcement officers and departments a viable possibility, rather than an idealistic hypothetical. However, more of us, as citizens, need to get involved in the effort—both at educational level as well as at a community involvement and political level—in order to ensure that progress is made and change takes place. Otherwise, the Early Intervention System will simply become another news blip in our society’s supposed effort to counteract the effects of widespread, institutionalized racism.
The Smart Policing Initiative assumes—by necessity, perhaps—that there are a finite number of ‘bad apples’ who can be tracked, and that this tracking and monitoring will eventually eliminate or go a long way in diminishing the violence that is so pervasive in law enforcement departments across the country. What it fails to take into account is basic tenets of human psychology and power dynamics that show people are more likely to use force and violence when given the power to do so—as famously documented in the Milgram experiment.
This is the same thing that happened with the torture and scandal in Iraq at Abu Ghraib not too long ago. Remember the dog collar, the nudity and the atrocious shaming that took place? That incident was explained away as symptomatic of a few proverbial bad apples as well. However, a good number of people pointed out the bad apple fallacy, arguing that the power structure of soldiers at Abu Ghraib was inherently problematic and symptomatic of the larger issue of ungoverned power run amuck.
Although inherent inequality and power dynamics contribute to inevitable run-ins with abuse of power, it’s still worthwhile to track and monitor individual members of police departments and law enforcement agencies, if only to hold individual perpetrators of inappropriate behavior accountable for their actions. The caveat to such monitoring is the following question: who is responsible for reporting inappropriate behavior? So far, there’s Ben Wellington, the University of Chicago, and an “independent evaluator,” according to this article about the recent “unprecedented” agreement between the American Civil Liberties Union and the Chicago Police Department.
That’s where big data and data monitoring comes in. Apparently, the White House’s new Police Data Initative is now working with the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department to improve the Early Intervention System (EIS) using data science. That’s one step in the right direction. Interestingly, this final Task Force report was published by the White House in May. If anything, the five pillars laid out in the report can serve as ideal standards of professionalism and safety for police departments around the country.
When police departments are in charge of their own data monitoring, how will their results differ from data monitoring of police carried out by citizens monitoring the suspicious behavior of officers with a history of potentially violent and unstable behavior? The recent Obama administration’s Interim Progress Report on big data is an effort to respond to the recent slew of documented killings of unarmed black men and women at the hands of police officers. It is, perhaps, a corrective to the Chicago Police Department’s “hotspots” tracking that attempts to predict perpetrators of violent crime.
Playing directly into this race-infused news and data maelstrom is the recent release of the movie Straight Outta Compton, which will likely remind many of us of the 1991 film Boyz N the Hood. Sadly, as The New Yorker’s Richard Brody notes, the film is disturbingly current:
“The group’s music makes for good business because it’s more than enjoyable for its audience; it’s essential news. In delivering what the musicians consider a journalistic report on life in Compton—with, as its defining aspect, the relentless threat of police violence—they render themselves not merely popular but indispensable, now as then. Straight Outta Compton is also—appallingly and infuriatingly—straight out of 2015. The sense of siege in the face of the authorities that N.W.A. reported on in the 19080’s is unrelieved today. The difference now is the sense of nationwide urgency that goes with it.”
Brody’s observation that there is now a sense of nationwide urgency is somewhat comforting, at first. However, this reaction is just as easily replaced by disagreement—depending on the person reading Brody’s commentary. How is it possible that the Rodney King trial and Boyz in the Hood resonate so deeply with Straight Outta Compton and what is happening now, in 2015?
It seems that N.W.A. were both observant and incredibly prophetic. In addition to being savvy about their audience, they had their finger on the pulse of what was—and is—happening in cities all over the country—Los Angeles being a sort of microcosm of pervasive racial profiling and systematic injustice, then and now. If this type of widespread police violence and unjustified brutality is not tracked by citizen watchers and independent watchdog groups, how will things ever change? According to Five Thirty Eight, the majority of incidents-involved police violence is still tracked by volunteers.
However, we still have these attitudes to deal with. The LAPD thinks Universal “should have waited” to release the movie. The response on Twitter and online has been revealing. One site, Hip Hop Wired, aptly asked “Wait for what, cops to stop brutalizing, and even killing, innocent people?” It’s this kind of response that will make accurate tracking and documented change to actually take place on an appreciable scale. As Martin Luther King, Jr., famously pointed out, “This ‘Wait’ has almost always meant ‘Never.’”
If you’re not willing to wait, either, you might be happy to learn that data tracking is growing as a career track. A number of academic data science programs are concerned with documenting and tracking police-civilian encounters and furthering the information base we have to work from. Policing the policers by making improvements to early warning and EIS systems is a start. Following #BlackLivesMatter and #BigData, #LAPD and #StraightOuttaCompton on Twitter is also surprisingly accurate in keeping a finger on the pulse of civilian sentiments over continuing reports of police brutality and widespread reactions to policing of the police—both mainstream and not.
It’s troubling—though not surprising—that certain showings of Straight Outta Compton were met with increased security—especially around Los Angeles neighborhoods in South Central Los Angeles, for example, where many events portrayed in the film took place. That kind of overly cautious, unfounded paranoia is part of a widespread attitude problem that the current level of awareness about police brutality will hopefully help to alleviate.
Hopefully we can begin to see people as more than just a member of a certain racial population or number on a demographics table. Hopefully Straight Outta Compton and increasing numbers of data scientists will continue to build momentum in the “sense of nationwide urgency” that has become more the norm than before. This increased momentum will potentially bring a larger number of people into increased awareness of racial disparities between different citizens’ experiences of documented police-citizen interactions. It is imperative that we continue our progression as a nation in combatting injustice in an effective, humane, systemic, and just manner.
Unedited Photo: Flickr/The All-Nite Images