Shop Notes

Researchers collect data to reform policing

Posted: Nov. 11, 2015 | Tags: data, science, social justice

Earlier this fall, I was invited to attend an extraordinary meeting at the White House. “Open Science and Innovation: Of the People, By the People, For the People” was the coming together of an effort that has been percolating in the federal government for the past couple of years, to engage more citizens in creating and using government data through citizen science and crowdsourcing.

The forum, which drew participants from all over the United States, explored ways to enable ordinary citizens everywhere to collect, analyze and contribute data to government agencies and access it, to help spot problems and devise solutions. More than 40 federal agencies, ranging from NASA to the Bureau of Land Management, now participate in a working group to figure out the nuts and bolts of how such a system would work throughout the U.S. government, and even on a global scale. Representatives from many of these agencies were present at the meeting.

This being the White House, I expected to see the leaders of the country’s major scientific institutions: John Holdren, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy; Frances Córdova, director of the National Science Foundation; and former congressman Rush Holt, now president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

But I did not expect to see a mother from the South Bronx at the podium describing how data had changed her life.

Jacqueline Yates is the mother of two young African-American men. She lives in the Morris Avenue section of the South Bronx, just east of Yankee stadium. Like other mothers in her neighborhood, she was angered by the New York Police Department’s aggressive policing, which seemed to target her sons and other local boys.

In 2011, researchers at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice and Pace University Law Center joined with Yates and other local mothers to collaborate on an unusual science project. Calling it “participatory action research” and “public science,” the researchers and community members together designed a survey on what it was like to grow up policed in New York City.

They outlined a 40-block area around Morris Avenue and handed out surveys. They also conducted interviews and focus groups. In a couple of months, they surveyed more than 1,000 residents of all ages. “It’s amazing how quickly people can learn to do quantitative statistical surveys,” says Brett Stoudt of John Jay College, one of the lead researchers on what is now known as the Morris Justice Project.  Yates was on a learning curve. “I realized I was one of the numbers in the surveys,” she told the White House audience.

Together, the researchers and community members analyzed the data. They discovered, among other things, that in 2011, 88 percent of people who were stopped by police in the study area had done nothing wrong, and 79 percent of all stops were of people of color. With the data they collected they also made what they call a critical map that challenged the New York Police Department's official statistics and causal connections on crime.

The project’s findings have contributed to legal challenges to New York’s “stop-and-frisk” policy, and the New York City Council’s decision to pass legislation to bring greater oversight and accountability to the NYPD.  

Today Yates and several other mothers are also plaintiffs in a federal class-action lawsuit challenging the NYPD’s aggressive patrols of private apartment buildings, and she is part of a coalition being consulted on police reforms.

All this shows that investigations — of intense interest to us here at the Workshop — come in many guises. For some, journalists seek information hidden from public view through Freedom of Information Act requests or whistleblowers who can shed light on government and corporate behavior.

But there is also a need for investigations when there is a lack of information. And if the affected community can participate in — and not just be the subject of — that research, so much the better. Whether the effort is top-down or bottom-up the ultimate goal is the same — to increase transparency and accountability.

The Morris Justice Project is also an example of how science pops up in the most unlikely places, educating and informing communities, and creating conditions for productive societal conversations. Researchers in Baltimore, a city recently convulsed by riots protesting police misconduct in black communities, have inquired about doing a similar project there. How might the national conversation on policing change with this type of data and community input to inform it?

Jacqueline Yates is justifiably proud of being invited to tell her story in the White House’s grand Eisenhower Executive Office Building, where aides in suits and uniformed military hurry down the polished corridors on presidential business.

Holt, who preceded Yates on the podium, told the crowd, “Asking questions based on evidence is accessible to all. It’s not just accessible; it’s essential that everyone practice this.”

Yates, to her great credit, did that, and commented to the audience in wonder, “Just look at where I am today.”

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