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Q&A: Professor Phillip Atiba Goff on America’s first national database focused on racial profiling

UCLA psychology professor and director of the university’s Center for Policing Equity to lead project that was initiated by police chiefs.

For the first time in American history, a majority of police chiefs from the so-called 70 major cities, along with others from small and medium-sized cities, are reaching out to researchers to determine whether and how often racial profiling occurs in their departments, and to develop strategies to reduce instances of such injustices. And they’re not just reaching out to anyone. UCLA assistant psychology professor and director of the university’s Center for Policing Equity Phillip Atiba Goff has been selected to lead a three-year project, initiated by police chiefs from across the country and funded by $1 million from the National Science Foundation (NSF), to create the nation’s first, largest and most robust database on racial profiling. Once populated, this repository will be used by researchers and law enforcement leaders to identify disparities and offer a starting point for more progressive, equitable policing.

UCLA Today’s Rebecca Kendall spoke with Goff, a professor in the UCLA College of Letters and Science, about this new project, why it’s important to law enforcement leaders and why racial profiling is something that impacts us all.

What is racial profiling?
The way that we understand it within the context of policing, it’s the unconstitutional use of race as an indicator of criminal suspicion.

How widespread a problem is racial profiling in America?
On one level, I don’t know any police chief of any major city that doesn’t have a concern that there is racially biased policing going on within their department because police departments have to hire from the human population, and there is a lot of bias in the human population. But that’s not to say that every department has a widespread massive problem with unconstitutional policing.

Have you ever been racially profiled?
One of the things that is difficult about being black in America is that you’re never sure when it is and when it isn’t about race. But I don’t know of any black man who has gotten to be my age without wondering whether or not their race is part of the reason they’re being treated the way they are, either by law enforcement or anybody else.

Are there certain groups that are targeted for racial profiling more than others?
The groups that we tend to stereotype the most as criminal are black, Latino or Muslim.

Why should people of all races be concerned about racial profiling?
The first reason is obvious; it’s not fair, and inequality and injustice should be a problem. The second reason is that it makes us less safe. Imagine a neighborhood where everybody feels like if they call the police, they’re going to get treated badly. That’s the kind of neighborhood that criminals like, because they know that the people there are going to be scared to call the police. Similarly, if you’re being attacked or your home is being attacked, you’d better hope that the person next door feels comfortable calling the cops. And racial profiling makes that less likely.

How will this database be used and by whom?
It will be used in a couple of different ways. Researchers will use it to say ‘This is where we are nationally,’ because currently there are no data on racial profiling or police use of force that are nationally representative — none that are any good. So we’re going to use it to answer fundamental questions with regards to the science of policing and equity. And then we’re going to report that back to the departments so they can find out where they are and chart a path to improvement.

What kind of data will be collected?
We’ve got four categories of data, including standardized data on police stops of pedestrians and vehicles and police use of force. We will also send out climate surveys to police departments. Together with those responses, we’ll also obtain departmental crime data, plus demographic data and other kinds of information that we can get locally. We’re going to have a really good real-world laboratory to identify what kind of factors, policies and demographic issues are likely to exacerbate bias in the real world.

What is the potential impact of this database and the lessons that will result from it?
We’ve been told by everyone from the NSF to the heads of major cities that this is a game changer. This could become a universal way to measure disparities in law enforcement. This could also put on the table a mutually agreed-upon starting point among traditional adversaries, so the American Civil Liberties Union, community members and law enforcement can say ‘Here’s where we are, and this is how we can move forward.’

Why the push for a national database on racial profiling now?
It’s a couple of things. A new generation of progressive leaders have met with people who have been around and seen that the old strategies have failed to yield the results they wanted. Also, folks are hungering for something new, and they’re realizing that a more transparent law enforcement leads to a more legitimate and more effective law enforcement culture, nationally speaking.

What makes this project particularly exciting for you?
If you think about the history of racial progress in this country, it has mostly been marked by adversarial conflict that frequently involves shouting, if not down-and-out violence. Look at this project — who’s invested, who’s excited and who’s responsible for it. It's traditional adversaries all saying they want to do this and work together as a team. You’ve got police chiefs saying, ‘Come into our departments, find out what we’re really doing in terms of race.’ It’s amazing for law enforcement and for contemporary science. But maybe even more importantly, it’s an amazing model for how to achieve our democratic principles through collaboration as opposed to conflict.

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