Researchers Grow Frustrated With Lack Of Science Guiding Our Nation's Police Departments


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Researchers Grow Frustrated With Lack Of Science Guiding Our Nation's Police Departments


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With the recent incidents involving alleged police brutality and unjustified shooting of African-Americans happening across the nation, both law enforcement and scientists believe that the time for change in policing needs to happen now.

With police training, regulations and guidelines as varied as the number of police departments across the United States, gathering specific data or using consistent science across the board is challenging to say the least. What is sure, however, is that distrust is running both ways between law enforcement and the communities that they protect.

Police departments are not necessarily fans of change and rarely cooperate with outside scientific researchers. Alex Vitale, a sociologist at Brooklyn College, stated that, “In New York where I’ve done a lot of my work [in studying how police respond to protests], I can’t get anyone to talk to me.”

And when social science research shows that reform is absolutely needed, it is almost impossible to implement these changes in police academies and local police departments throughout the country.

One program that the United States Department of Justice believes could help mend the rift between law enforcement and communities is the Community Oriented Policing Services Program. In fact, the U.S.D.O.J. has spent more than $14 billion to support community policing initiatives.

The premise of the project is that the best way to decrease prejudice in officers is for them to personally interact with people who are different from themselves. For example, police officers usually only encounter black people when there is a crisis and they are responding to a crime. They rarely see these individuals and neighborhoods in positive situations.

The problem is that no one really knows how to accomplish the community policing initiatives. Research indicates that there is no clear evidence that the initiatives reduce crime or decrease the number of times police officers face black people in crisis situations. Therefore, the United States has spent $14 billion on an undefined program with undefined goals.

It is frustrating to researchers who have published dozens of studies showing that bias in police officers and the general public exists with respect to African-Americans. The U.S.D.O.J.’s investigation into the what happened at Ferguson found that law enforcement officers were twice as likely to search black people than white people during routine traffic stops, even though contraband was discovered 26% less often with black people. And, these often unconscious biases become more serious when deadly force takes place. A 2007 video game demonstrated that Denver police officers were faster to shoot African-Americans than white people.

Carl Bell, a psychologist at the University of Illinois at Chicago, has performed significant work on de-escalation with mentally ill individuals. He tried to introduce these de-escalation techniques to the Chicago P.D. but was not well-received. “There’s no systematic incorporation of research,” he states, and expressed his wish that such research was at least reviewed by police departments.

However, in light of the recent events illustrating the weaknesses in the law enforcement system, it appears that some police departments are seeing the light and opening their eyes towards outside scientific research. Charlotte Gill, a criminologist at George Mason University, points out that, “A perfect storm can be really disruptive but it can also create change.” She stated that a police department recently approached her to conduct a study and help the department, rather than vice versa. “It was really surprising to me. That rarely happens.”

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