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How piecemeal police reform is setting the stage for national change

The death of Ronald Greene, a Black man who died in Louisiana in 2019 after a police chase is under scrutiny after newly released police body camera footage shows he was choked and beaten by troopers -- a starkly different picture from what the police had shared. Phillip Atiba Goff, co-founder and CEO of the Center for Policing Equity, and professor of African-American studies and psychology at Yale University joins to discuss the issues on renewed calls for police reform.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Early police reports, and subsequent evidence, presented in the police killing of George Floyd painted a contradictory picture of the deadly events that played out that evening, nearly a year ago in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

    More recently, newly released video from two years ago–after the death of Ronald Greene in Louisiana– paints another inconsistent picture.

    Greene died in law enforcement custody after a car chase.

    And while incidents like these spark renewed calls for police reform, consensus on what that means is nebulous.

    I spoke with Philip Atiba Goff, co-founder and CEO of the Center for Policing Equity and professor of African-American studies and psychology at Yale University about these issues.

    In this last year, have we seen structural changes to policing in America?

  • Philip Atiba Goff:

    So there's two ways for me to take that question. The first way is has the country changed? And I think that most people are frustrated by the lack of change that they see nationwide. And it absolutely feels like it's a nationwide question. That's in part because people are looking at federal legislation which hasn't passed. They're looking for presidential leadership. And we've just had a transition. They're looking for something that deals with it and a full national level. And when we're looking there, it doesn't look like what we want to see.

    That said, there are lots of pockets, communities, organizers around the country that have done really remarkable things. We've seen the city of Berkeley and low level traffic enforcement, city of Baltimore is declining to prosecute it. City of Ithaca just approved a plan to dissolve its police department and put together something entirely different, a Department of Community Solutions and Public Safety that's majority unarmed, civilian led, and won't send anybody armed to a nonviolent conflict.

    So I think what's happening is we're seeing piecemeal, light years of leaps. So piecemeal jumps forward towards what we're trying to do. And that's going to be ultimately unsatisfying when we're looking at in a national lens. But it's going to create the models that make it possible to see full national change.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Because you have what, 18,000 different police departments or jurisdictions and what might work in a college town like Berkeley or Ithaca, will it work on the streets of a major American city? How do we kind of get from one place to the other without the sort of cultural immediate resistance and response that says, hold on here, I equate more cops on the streets with increased safety, because partly, that is the message that I've heard and believed for decades.

  • Philip Atiba Goff:

    Yeah, I mean, it's a good question. Ithaca and Berkeley are not Philadelphia and St. Louis, and we shouldn't try to pretend like they are. There's 18,000 law enforcement agencies across the United States. And when we think of policing, we think of NYPD and Chicago and Houston and Philadelphia. But the reality is, 75% of those law enforcement agencies are 25 officers or fewer. And there's a thousand that are just one dude, but it's pretty much always a dude. So in that context, we're going to see really different changes in a city where there's 63 officers, that in a city where there's 35,000. That might not even be the same job.

    So, no, I don't think what's happening in Berkeley and Ithaca is an immediate roadmap for Chicago and Dallas. I do think, though, that they provide models for how communities come together and say this is how we keep ourselves safe. And so it may not be possible for New York to do what Ithaca just did, even though they're in the same state. It may be possible, though, for one borough or for one precinct to give that a shot and that we scale up community by community and block by block, because that's honestly how crime works. Crime is hyper local. It's not even like a neighborhood. It's one street corner within that neighborhood that's like 85% of the violence.

    So if crime works that way, why do we imagine that solutions to crime, solutions to poverty, solutions to the concentrated sets of disadvantage that make crime a more attractive reality? Why do we imagine that our solutions don't have to take the same kind of shape and the same kind of scale? I don't know why, but I'm going to tell you, we're going to be disappointed until we rightsize those sets of things.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    But what complicates matters is that we're having this conversation in still kind of, I'd say hopefully the second half of a pandemic, which has had massive economic repercussions, has made people think so differently about where they are in society. Are they essential or are they expendable? How do I fit into this? What is the role of police and crime, is kind of one question that's part of a much, much bigger set of challenges that we're all dealing with.

  • Philip Atiba Goff:

    Yeah, it's both, it makes it more complicated because look at all the other things we've got to do just to stay safe, right. Especially during a period where the economy is crashing and we've not provided appropriate protections against evictions. How do you social distance when you can't stay indoors? And also, it provides a unique set of opportunities because it's very clear the way that we keep people indoors isn't working.

    The way we keep people employed isn't working. Look at Mississippi, where they provided unemployment insurance, and then all of a sudden people decided they didn't want to go back to menial jobs that weren't treating them very well. And the governor decided, you know what, we got to take away your money, otherwise you'll never produce for us. People are thinking about entire economic systems differently because the way that we've set up our society does not treat vulnerable people like they're fully human. And that's a great way to start thinking about public safety, because if all we're doing right now is thinking about the police, we've already failed.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    So how do you translate from, say, for example, if you could wave a magic wand and have every officer and all 18,000 jurisdictions of law enforcement agencies take implicit bias tests and understand that there are certain things that they bring to every occasion? How do you translate that into an actual cultural shift where we perceive one another differently day after day, incident after incident, which is really difficult.

  • Philip Atiba Goff:

    It is. It's so difficult that I don't know that we really want to try. Here's what I mean by that. The way you ask that question, and I'm not attacking you in any way, the way you ask that question, it's the way I get asked a lot. How do we change the hearts and minds of officers to make policing better? And I think that's the wrong diagnosis of the solution. Rather than focusing on the hearts and minds of officers or really the hearts and minds of anybody, let's focus on the behaviors, on the structures that we erect that overdetermined everybody's behaviors. And scout's honor, we're going to get a better outcome. I'm a social psychologist, right? That's my training. That's my background. I'm in the psych department at Yale. Right. So I'm a psychologist's psychologist in this way. And I'm telling you, we've known for the better part of the last century, the attitudes in general are really weak predictors of behavior.

    But if you want to change attitudes, the best way to do that is to change behavior. So instead of thinking about how do we affect the hearts and minds of officers, let's regulate the behaviors. They'll change their attitudes when they act differently. It seems counterintuitive. It seems cart before the horse. But I'm telling you, in psych study after study and meta analysis after meta analysis, all of the science is clear. Behaviors change attitudes more quickly and more profoundly than attitudes change behavior.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    So what are changes to behaviors that police departments could implement to hopefully change attitudes over time?

  • Philip Atiba Goff:

    So my collaborator, dear friend and mentor Jennifer Eberhardt, had a wonderful intervention in Oakland, where she just made sure that officers, every officer before they engage in a stop, they have to write down, this is an intelligence led stop. I have intelligence from this source that says this is a good stop. And the following year after they implemented that, they stopped 43% fewer black people and crime kept going down.

    Now, that's not quite causality, but that's a pretty good start. In Las Vegas, they were having a big problem with their use of force after foot pursuits. And so Center for Policing Equity, the community and Las Vegas Metro Police Department came together and said, hey, after a foot pursuit, my adrenaline's up, my heart rate's up and I know you're a bad guy. Maybe that's the problem. Maybe I just slow down, count to 10, don't touch you until backup shows up and the year after they implemented that, 23% decline. But the best intervention is no law enforcement showing up in the first place where they don't need to be.

    The last 25 years of doing this work, everything I hear from police chiefs is don't ask us to be schoolteachers, mental health experts, substance abuse counselors, homeless experts, and activists are asking for the same darn thing. Don't send a badge and a gun when the crisis is homelessness. Send a roof and four walls. Then you don't have to worry about them being better. You don't have to worry about them being there at all. Don't introduce a gun to a situation where someone needs shelter. It'll make a tremendous difference in how often we have to mourn our dead.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Are you optimistic?

  • Philip Atiba Goff:

    I genuinely believe that optimism in the face of reality is a bit of a revolutionary act, you try and be a bit of a revolutionary every day. So I am optimistic and I am also not naïve about what it's going to take to get from here to someplace different in a lasting kind of way.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Alright, Phillip Goff from Yale and the co-founder and co-CEO of the Center for Policing Equity, thanks so much for joining us.

  • Philip Atiba Goff:

    Thanks, Hari.

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