How to Make Policing Less Deadly and Less Racist

Phillip Atiba Goff is a leading scholar on law enforcement and race. He’s a psychologist and CEO of the Center for Policing Equity (CPE), a think tank that collects and analyzes data to better understand police behavior and fight implicit bias. He tells Michel Martin how CPE is working in collaboration with law enforcement and communities to help make policing less deadly and less racist.

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CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR: And we dig further into policing with our next guest, who is a leading scholar on law enforcement and race. Phillip Atiba Goff is a psychologist and CEO of the Center for Policing Equity think tank that collects and analyzes data to shed light on police behavior and fight implicit bias. And he’s telling our Michel Martin now that making the police force match the times boils down to our one key relationship.

MICHEL MARTIN: Thanks, Christiane. Professor Goff, thank you so much for joining us.


MARTIN: You are one of the foremost authorities on the issue of policing and race. How did you get interested in this subject? It seems, in a way, like a subject that has been hiding in plain sight, but you have brought kind of a rigor to it that just wasn’t there before. How did you get interested in this?

GOFF: I mean, honestly, I fell down the rabbit hole just a little bit before other people did. When the nation was starting to talk about mass incarceration, I was in graduate school, and I thought that was the direction it was going to go. But, in 1999, when I graduated college and moved to start my Ph.D, there was a very famous shooting of Amadou Diallo. And what happened in that shooting shook not just the nation, but also the field of psychology, because what happened, there were 41 shots put into his body, 41 shots fired. And they said that they saw a gun, but, in reality, he had his wallet in his hand. And that’s the kind of sort of cognitive illusion that psychologists love to be doing in laboratories. And all of a sudden, we realized the stuff that we do in the lab could matter in the world. We fast-forward nine years later, in 2008, I was writing a little something about policing. I thought policing was going to be part of my work. And at the end of it, I wanted to add a statistic about police brutality, or just police use the force of any kind. I started middle of the day. I ended 13-and-a-half-hours later, and I got up and walked home, because I realized the reason I couldn’t find that stat is because it didn’t exist. So, in a world where someone can get shot 41 times for a trick of the eye, that we didn’t measure anything about the way that the state treats its most vulnerable, most depressed folks, black folks, Native folks, that seemed impossible to me. And I realized as I was walking home, this is just going to be what I do for the rest of my life.

MARTIN: Your early research subjects that have gotten a lot of attention focused on misapprehension of the age of black children? I mean, you started with black boys. And one of your finding was that people in this sort of a target research group, which was mainly white male, white male police officers, routinely misrepresented the age of black boys. Just talk a little bit more about that and why that matters.

GOFF: So, ours was the third of the sort of published studies to find something like that effect, but it was the most, no pun intended, arresting, because it had on-duty officers and it also had pictures of the boys. So you were literally looking at a 13-year-old boy, and not just officers, but lay folks, college students, and regular everyday citizens, were seeing them as two and three and four and five and six years older than they were. And when we got the data back, and we saw that black boys were given an extra four-and-a-half years, meaning someone who’s 13 gets treated basically like an adult, we thought, wow, that’s really difficult to swallow. I’m not sure that that effect isn’t just an accident of the subjects or an accident of the pictures we showed. But I believe, later that year, it was in Cleveland that Tamir Rice was shot and killed. And you hear clearly the officer saying, black male years old. Tamir Rice was 12. That was part of how I knew the things we were getting the lab were likely underestimations of what we’re seeing, what people are experiencing in their lives.

MARTIN: One of the things that has intrigued me about the current moment is that you’re seeing two different sort of philosophies around policing and why these issues persist. On the one hand, you have got the bad apples argument. It’s just some bad apples, and that they have got to do better at weeding out their bad apples. And yet you have got other people saying, no, this is a system problem and the systems need to change. So, talk to me about that. Which is it? Is it bad apples or is it a system problem?

GOFF: Yes, it’s a question I’m getting a lot and have been since the Floyd murder was first captured and broadcast. I have to say, all of these conversations, the way that we frame them, I think, frankly, it’s because it’s easier to frame a conflict, which is what we’re seeing in the streets, as if it’s an ideological conflict or a group- based conflict. I got to say that’s not the way that we have done our research and that’s not the way that we see the deal. When I go and talk to cops for the last 12 years — and I’m a black man from Philly — I did not imagine that my life would be police chiefs being like, oh, thank goodness, Dr. Racism is here. But that’s what it looks like. They invite me in and they’re like, all right, don’t say this out loud, but there’s some racist cops in here. Help me get them out. Also, we shouldn’t go into communities and acting like social workers. I don’t want my cops trying to de-escalate a domestic dispute unless we think it’s going to get violent. Why am I sending a badge and a gun to go deal with someone who is trying to kill themselves, right? They need mental health services. They need substance abuse services. Cops, chiefs, all the time say, what can I do in a community that has no grocery stores, no educational facilities, none of that stuff? How much of that sounds exactly like the protesters? And the chiefs have been saying this for decades. So this idea of, oh, not — don’t do incremental, we have got to defund, vs., no, we have to be responsible, defund is lunacy, that is a distraction by people who profit from distraction. There is a straightforward, adult path towards aligning our public safety systems with the values of communities. We should walk to that path. And everybody trying to distract from it should go to bed, so that the adults can do work with the adults have to do.

MARTIN: So, I want to talk to you about what that path is. But, first, I do want to ask you, why do we keep having 1,000 people killed by police every year?

GOFF: So, one piece of it is because the full humanity of black people has been invisible since the founding of the country as it stands right now. So, if you can’t see someone’s humanity, you can’t see the things that cause them pain. It’s just illegible to you. But I think the deeper piece of this is, we have never had a full accounting of the ways in which we have targeted black communities for abuse and erasure. I have been saying it now for weeks. What we have been seeing on the streets is not just a policing problem. It is a past due notice on the unpaid debts owed to black people for 400-plus years. And since we haven’t bothered to account for it, when you have a debt that keeps coming due, you’re likely just to pay off pieces of the interest, none of the principal. The reason it doesn’t change is because we’re not scaling our problems, right, to the full measure of the issues. We’re arguing about tactics, when we first have to reckon with scales, right? If you want to say to me, oh, I think we can kill this beast with a knife, and I say, no, we can beat it with a stick, right, a third person comes in and says, you remember the thing you’re trying to kill, it is 200 feet tall? Those tactics are not the problem. The problem is, we haven’t reckoned with the scale. And until we do, we’re going to see it over and over and over again. That involves recognizing the full humanity of the people who have been speaking, centering our voices. But it also involves an honest accounting of history, something this country has been notoriously terrible at since we started.

MARTIN: So, let’s talk more about — you say your path, the adult path here.

GOFF: Right. And so I hope you won’t find me too terribly difficult, but the protesters are asking for policing/and, right? So, there’s a range of things that people mean when they say defund the police. Right? Some mean literal abolition, communities can just take care of it themselves. But most of the protesters I talk to, most folks in black communities that I know want just less of a footprint. They want literally the same things the chiefs have been asking for, for years. Scott Thomson used to be the chief in Camden, New Jersey, is wont to say, give me a Boys and Girls Club, I’ll give you back 10 officers any day. Right? And it’s that kind of thinking that is part of the adult path, right? We used to have mental health hospitals in this country, right? Now, they had a terrible history, right, and awful abuses, but there was public funding for mental health services. Right? If you could get that right, you would have less of a need for law enforcement to be the only place you could call when something like that has happened, right? We used to have significant investment in public schools. As that gets lifted up and thrown away, and we privatize more of that, you end up saying, well, these folks are rowdy because they haven’t eaten, right? These folks are unruly because they have to go work jobs after school starting middle school. And so we put police in there, instead of nurses and counselors and doctors. Right? So, the ACLU, I think a couple years ago, came out and said 14 million kids go to school in a school that has police, but no social workers, nurses, counselors. How on earth is that the right thing to do? Police have been calling for this. Now, because it comes with a slogan that feels scary to some people, people are intentionally not hearing what it could mean.

MARTIN: Perhaps it’s a ridiculous question. You say that the chiefs support this. What are they doing?

GOFF: So, a lot of chiefs have actually been trying. I think part of the reason why we see it is because it fits our narrative that cops are racist thugs. And for sure, I have met cops who are racist thugs. But across the country, a lot of chiefs have been embracing a number of these reforms. Part of the reason why we haven’t seen it is because culture change is hard. You have folks who have union-guaranteed contracts. It’s very difficult to fire them. So, between 2006 and 2017, about 1,800 officers who got fired in major cities, about a quarter of them got — had to be rehired because of the ways in which contracts were set up. So, it’s hard to fix the culture if the bigots can’t get fired for being bigoted. That’s a portion of it. Right? The other part is that, in major cities at least, the average tenure of a police chief is about two-and-a- half years. So, let’s just imagine I’m a bigot, and I see someone coming in trying to change the culture. You’re like, I will just wait them out. So, that is not an excuse, but it’s part of the reason why it’s so hard. Right? That said, I think, frankly, there hasn’t been the kind of urgency where you say, if I’m only going to do this for two-and-a-half years, I’m going to make sure that I really move the needle on culture and nothing else. So, there hasn’t been the outside pressure to say, if you don’t get this done, we’re going to hold you accountable to this value. And that, I think, is the thing that I want everybody to understand. We hire and fire police chiefs to manage the crime rate. If the crime rate ticks up, it doesn’t matter how wonderful they’ve been. They’re out. We need to be thinking about hiring and firing chiefs and superintendents, commissioners, voting for sheriffs if they do justice. And it’s that value that means we the people are going to give or withdraw our consent to be policed this way to the degree that we’re having law enforcement within our community. We haven’t held them accountable to that value. And so it’s really hard for them to focus on that value.

MARTIN: You have also talked about a national database, the need for a national database. Talk more about that.

GOFF: So, there is lots of talk of different kinds of national databases. The Center for Police Equity owns the National Justice Database. This is the largest collection of police behavioral data in the world, which is a super humble brag. Right? There’s not a lot of good data. It is not collected very widely well. And lots of places who talk about having it have pieces and bits and small things. Remember, there’s 18,000, roughly, law enforcement agencies across the United States; 75 percent of them are 25 officers or fewer. And 1,000 are one dude. It’s always a dude, right? So they don’t have good data, right? But still having it in one place allows you to start learning about how police are engaging in communities. But the long and short is this. We have measured in this country everything that matters to us, right? Amazon and Target know when the family gets pregnant by what you’re searching for online, right? Your newspaper, if they’re a big newspaper, knows when you’re thinking about canceling your subscription. That’s how we get the ads we get. It is a trillion-dollar industry to gather data and know what people are doing. And we have measured next to nothing about what the state does to the sons and daughters of former slaves in this country. That should be an outrage.

MARTIN: And why don’t we?

GOFF: Because we haven’t cared. If we cared, we would have measured it. Think about a single thing that you care about in your life. And if really you care, you measure it, even if it’s only implicitly.

MARTIN: What about national standards for the use of force or national policing standards in general?

GOFF: Think about what police are tasked with, right. A lawyer is tasked with deciding — making strong decisions about liberty, lawyers and judges. Liberty, who gets to be free. Doctors are entrusted with the ability to make good decisions about life. Law enforcement has both responsibilities, life and liberty. You can’t lose your license as a doctor in one state and then be like, I’m just going to try doctoring again in this next state over. You can’t lose your certification as a lawyer in one state and say, I’m going to try lawyering someplace else. But you can do that in law enforcement, because we don’t have a national registry, and we don’t have a set of standards to say, if you fall below these standards, we will not entrust you with that badge and that gun, with the license to take away life and liberty. That is ludicrous. And law enforcement, by the way, has mostly been calling for the same thing for years. Here, we do see a difference between leaders and unions, because, for unions, it ends up being a burden. And for chiefs, it ends up being liberty — liberating.

MARTIN: You testified before the House. There is a piece of legislation put forth by House Democrats. So, far it is only Democrats. What would it do and what is your evaluation of it?

GOFF: So, I encourage people to go to the Leadership Conference for Civil and Human Rights Web site. It’s civilrights.org. You can read eight of the pillars there. And in the time we’ve got right now, I think I probably can’t get into great depth into all eight of them. But I think what is really important is that this is — each one would be almost unimaginable three weeks ago, right, each one of those eight pillars. It does things like put a federal ban on all neck restraints, something that many major cities have done, but this would allow federal litigators to come in and say, enough, we have jurisdiction here as well. It calls for a national registry of fired officers, so that officers like Timothy Loehmann, who killed Tamir Rice and had been referred for termination in the last department, he quit before he could be fired, and then was fired from Cleveland P.D., and now still works in law enforcement someplace else. That couldn’t happen. OK? It calls for an end to qualified immunity. There is a list of, again, eight things, all of which have either a strong moral values-based reason for being there or a strong scientific component or both. What would it do? Functionally, it would begin the first step process of allowing our federal and local governments to hold police accountable in ways that right now we fail to every single time there’s a shooting.

MARTIN: You have been doing this work for a long time. Does this feel like a different moment, where there might be a large shift in the direction that you hope to see us go in?

GOFF: That’s a double barreled question. Does it feel like a different moment? It does. After Ferguson, about a quarter of the country said that racism in policing was systematic. Now we’re up to 74 percent. I don’t know where those 26 percent are looking. But the country has moved. We’re talking about structural change and investment in black communities, where, before, we were talking about pattern and practice investigations in law enforcement. So, this is a different moment. The people who I’m talking to in D.C. are talking about a need to act or losing the consent of the governed. Right? And we’re seeing ideas floated from the White House on racial justice. So that’s a different moment. Are we going to see lasting change? Don’t know yet. Right? I have been saying over and over again, the most important thing that people who are newly awakened and engaged in these issues can do is strap in, because, for sure, there’s going to be more dead bodies. For sure, there is going to be more hashtags asking for justice for the families and accountability for the person who can’t get justice anymore because they’re lying on the ground. For sure, we’re not solving this so that George Floyd is the last one. We’ve already seen that that’s not going to be true. So, it will depend on how many of us decide to be adults and strap in for the marathon that is accounting for 400-plus years of targeted oppression. We have had a couple weeks of people kind of getting it. I don’t think that’s equal. So we are going to need to put significantly more on the side of the scale that is justice to bend that long arc of the moral universe.

MARTIN: Professor Phillip Atiba Goff, thank you so much for speaking with us.

GOFF: Thank you, Michelle.

About This Episode EXPAND

Christiane speaks with Baroness Valerie Amos about the UK’s new commission to investigate racial inequality. She also speaks with David Simon, creator of “The Wire,” about the role of cops in the American public imagination. Michel Martin speaks with law enforcement scholar Phillip Atiba Goff about fighting implicit biases in police departments.