Center for Policing Equity Pres. Phillip Atiba Goff, Ph.D.

The President and Co-Founder of the Center for Policing Equity discusses the social and psychological underpinnings of violence against young blacks by police.

Dr. Phillip Atiba Goff is an Associate Professor of Social Psychology at UCLA, and the co-founder and president for research of the Center for Policing Equity. An expert in contemporary forms of racial bias and discrimination, Dr. Goff has conducted groundbreaking work exploring the ways in which racial prejudice is not a necessary precondition for racial discrimination. His research demonstrates that contextual factors can facilitate racially unequal outcomes. Dr. Goff’s work has been recognized by NIMH, SPSSI, the Woodrow Wilson Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Mellon Foundation, and the Russell Sage Foundation. Most recently, Dr. Goff has been recognized as the emerging leader in research on race, gender, and policing. He is the 2009 Early Career Award Recipient for APA’s Division 9 and Division 48.


Tavis: Tests prove that Black boys are often judged as more culpable than whites or Latinos and their age is over-estimated by an average of four and a half years. Black children may be viewed as adults when they are just 13 years old.

Tonight then, a conversation about the social and psychological underpinnings of violence against young Blacks by police. Our guest, Professor Phillip Atiba Goff, president and co-founder of the Center for Policing Equity at UCLA. Professor, good to have you on this program.

Phillip Atiba Goff: Thanks for having me, Tavis.

Tavis: There are many who believe–and I’m sure this won’t be the first time you’ve heard this–that it is, where policing is concerned, open season on Black boys. Is that an overstatement?

Goff: I think that is an overstatement, yes.

Tavis: Yes, okay.

Goff: I think what we’re witnessing right now is a moment where we have the capacity, the technology, to make the lives of these children visible. And with that has come outrage because the ways in which those communities are treated and those children are treated is absolutely anathema to all of our values.

But it’s not the case there’s any evidence that the problem is getting worse. In fact, there’s just not that much evidence at all. That’s been the issue.

Tavis: So if it is not, as some believe, open season on Black boys, what are we experiencing because you look at the data, at least those stories that make the news, and one gets the feeling at least that something is amiss.

Goff: That’s right. What we’re seeing is a problem that’s been going on for a really long time. But you said the key words. We look at the data. But the data that we’ve got is terrible. There are no national data whatsoever on police behavior.

We don’t know how many people get stopped, pedestrian stops just walking, stopped in their car. We have no idea how often or how severe police use of force is anywhere because we just don’t have it. That’s been a huge part of the problem.

So I’m glad that we’re taking these moments to try and collect some of that data. That’s what the Center for Policing Equity is principally doing this year is create the first national database on that. But the fact that it’s the first and it’s happening now in 2015, that’s an American embarrassment.

Tavis: So how do you create a database without the cooperation of institutions and departments?

Goff: You don’t. And I think the good news race story on this has been that police departments came to us and they said–frankly, one of them in particular said, “We have been…”–like Eric Holder said, “We were a nation of cowards”–“we’ve been a profession of cowards.” We don’t want to know that we’re the worst or that we’re worse than the police department over there.

We don’t like being compared to each other, but we need to know this if we’re ever going to make a difference. This was right after Trayvon Martin. They asked for it and they said, “Would you please put a national database together that we can trust?”

And that’s where it came from. People are opting in. There’s no federal requirement to get into it, but people are jumping over themselves to try and get in to a database so that they can know where are we and how do we get better from here?

Tavis: You say jumping over themselves. I asked a question to begin this conversation whether or not you thought it was an overstatement. Is that an overstatement? Are people, departments, that is, that anxious to find this out?

Goff: So just last week, we announced–or I should say, the attorney general announced–the six pilot sites for the National Initiative to Build Community Trust and Justice.

I can tell you that when one of the U.S. attorneys from one of the sites that was picked found out that they had been selected for an intervention to help their police department get better, the chief and the U.S. attorney were both in tears on the phone.

They so desperately wanted to do better on this. So it’s not an overstatement. It would be an overstatement to say that every department is, right? There are lots of departments that would rather be far away from this.

We’re talking about police, not sheriffs. Now there are sheriff departments that want to be involved, but there’s a big difference between the two. You’ll note I don’t ever talk about some of the people that are in the news for doing the worst among this profession.

Those folks aren’t jumping all over themselves, but the vast majority of especially large cities, they’re led by chiefs and executives that really want to do the right thing and they’re pulling out their hair. They’re banging their heads against the wall ’cause it’s harder than just having the right principles.

Tavis: If they are that concerned and that disturbed to the point of tears on a telephone call, why hasn’t more been done heretofore? Why did it take–whether it’s been overstated or not–why did it take Tamir Rice and Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown and Eric Garner–I could go on and on and on. Why did it take all that if they were that concerned?

Goff: That, I think, is a fair question. You can be really concerned about a thing, but if you don’t have a direction, then it’s real hard to move. I’ve been using this sort of both in my own sort of bible study and in the work that I do.

Proverbs 29:18. Where there is no vision, the people perish. But, you know, that’s a mistranslation from the Hebrew ’cause it doesn’t actually say perish. The Hebrew word for it is parah, which means to be shaken loose. So if you don’t have a vision for how you’re going to move forward, then you end up getting shaken loose from that plan.

So I think what we’ve actually had, we’ve had a new generation of chiefs come in to say, “We want to do right. We want to do better. We want to trust in evidence-based approaches.”

But the urgency has not been there on the national level. The funding hasn’t been there. And the vision for what better looks like hasn’t been there. They have a couple of ideas, but it’s not to radically reshape the department.

And now I think what’s happened in the wake of all these tragedies, they have the license to go out and say, “We’re going to do something bold ’cause bold action’s needed to make sure that this stuff doesn’t continue.”

Tavis: Let me live on national television, on PBS tonight, go out on a limb, which really ain’t much of a limb. But let me go out on a limb and predict to you that, when the evidence-based data comes in, it’s going to underscore that there is a bias against young Black boys. Just a wild guess that I’m going to take here on national TV tonight.

Goff: You’re courageous [laugh].

Tavis: So when we discover that I am right, then what? Because it’s one thing to be anxious for the data, but when the data reveals that y’all been acting and behaving in some ugly ways even though you’re sworn to protect and serve, then what?

Goff: Great question. I don’t know. I’m a scientist and we’re a long way from knowing all of the things they need to do. So I can’t give you the full map, but we do know some things that definitely work.

We know, for instance, as not just a religious principle or statement of values, but a scientific fact that cooperation and compliance with the law begins with trust in it and not fear of it.

And when you train police that their job is not to inspire fear of deterrence, but to inspire trust in community policing, that in fact crime goes down, reporting goes up, cleared cases go up, violence decreases, right? So that’s a thing that we can do.

What I can tell you is that, though we don’t have the full roadmap, we’re getting the map by getting the data. And what we’re also able to tell you is that training is great and affecting hearts and minds is important. It’s a part of our national character.

But situations matter almost infinitely more than character at predicting anything. So we’re going to have to change the policies and the incentive structures for law enforcement in order to get us to where we’re trying to go to, which is reducing the disparities.

Tavis: So we can’t legislate morality. We can’t legislate character. We can’t legislate those kinds of ideals and virtues. So I wonder to what extent these police departments–I don’t want to paint all with the broad brush as you suggested earlier.

But these police forces that are out of control with this bias against young Black boys, how much are they mirroring the bias that exists in the larger society? And if I’m right about–that’s the question. But if I’m right about this, then how do you root that out?

Goff: That is the $25 million question or whatever they’re paying for it these days. One of the things that I like to make sure that I say whenever I’m going to a community meeting is, however furious you might be, I might be, at local law enforcement ’cause we know that discrimination is taking place, this is racism.

Let me call what it is. It’s not just bias. It’s not implicit. It’s racism. As much as we know that, why would we think for a second that, if it exists in policing, it doesn’t exist in employment, in education, in healthcare, and in housing?

Tavis: Or vice versa.

Goff: Exactly. So if it exists in all those, those are going to be upstream for most of our contact with the criminal justice system. How do we disaggregate that? National level data because we got national level data with, you know, controlling for certain factors.

You can say, well, it’s actually the educational disparities that are the biggest predictor, so we need to be focusing on that. Not to say we can’t focus on law enforcement, but we need to focus on that and this is the percentage that belongs to law enforcement, this is the percentage that belongs to the employers.

Tavis: I wonder whether or not you think, Professor Goff, that data can make the difference for all the craving that there exists now, to your point, on the part of departments for this data.

Can data really make the difference? I ask that ’cause I can give you two or three issues right now that we talk about in the news every day where the data isn’t making a difference.

Let’s start with climate change. Let’s go to global warming. Let’s go to immigration. Let’s go to–even when the data comes in, there are those who play politics with the numbers. Numbers don’t lie, people do. So can data make a difference?

Goff: Data is a tool, right? Data doesn’t lead inevitably to any particular thing, but it is a tool. And where we’re at right now is a rare moment. When was the last time that communities of color got together with law enforcement and solved a racial problem as opposed to constituting a racial problem?

I am telling you the vast majority of law enforcement, executives at least, the chiefs, they want to do better on this from a genuine place. And they believe that they can, but they don’t know the direction to go lots of times. So the data can be a tool if you’ve got the right heart and you’ve got the willingness to make a change.

Tavis: So is there a way–before I let you go here–is there a way for us to follow the work that you’re doing as you’re doing it? Or do we have to wait until this report–reports–come out?

Goff: So you can go to the National Initiative to Build Community Trust and Justice. It’s the Trust and Justice Initiative, You can go to and that’s where the Center for Policing Equity work is. And those two places also have Twitter accounts and Facebook accounts.

You can like us, you can follow us, and we’re going to be eager to make sure the community has a voice in the research process because they’ve not had a voice and access to the data up until now.

Tavis: Let me treat the question I asked a moment ago to close our conversation. Are you hopeful that the data that will be produced can in fact make a difference in our society?

Goff: Without the data, we lack the tools to live lives that are consistent with our principles. With the data, we indict ourselves if we don’t move forward on it.

Tavis: Professor Phillip Atiba Goff doing great work and I am delighted to have had him on the program tonight to give you a sense of what they’re working on here at UCLA and what the rest of us ought to be apprised of once that work is done. Good to have you on.

Goff: Thanks very much, Tavis.

Tavis: Good to see you, Professor.

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Last modified: March 19, 2015 at 6:12 pm