How to Use Data to Combat Bias in Policing

First published September 21, 2018

Read Part I Here

The following is the second half of an interview with one of LEAP’s newest representatives, Commissioner Branville Bard. He spent the majority of the last 25 years with the Philadelphia Police Department and has gained attention for implementing crime reduction and police training programs. He was appointed Commissioner of the Cambridge Police Department in Massachusetts in 2017.

Commissioner Bard: First, the ‘Towards Simplicity’ part in my dissertation, came from — when you research racial profiling, you’ll see that a lot of the scholarly work comes from economists and you have these equations that are so advanced that only folks with advanced degrees in statistics and mathematics can understand it. I need my 70-year-old mother to be able to understand what I’m talking about, and your average cop or citizen. We need to do things simplistic enough that I can explain them to my average community member.

I advocate for a system that weighs the amount of discretion an officer has in taking an action versus a compelling governmental interest that we would have in an officer taking that action. I think you can accomplish that by looking at the three main components of any police/citizen interaction: the reason for the stop, the result of the stop, and the duration of the stop.

It is important to look at most of the benchmarks we currently use and understand that they all have limitations. The population benchmark is popular — many agencies use this. They’ll say (and I’m just making numbers up) a certain minority group represents 20% of their population, and when they examine their stops, they stopped that minority group at roughly 20%. So, the inference would be that no racial profiling exists, but it doesn’t tell us… while that minority group makes up 20% of the population, do they make up 20% of the driving population?

It doesn’t tell you that when you stop minorities you hold them an average of 40 minutes but hold non-minorities only 7 to 10 minutes. It doesn’t tell you that you typically stop minorities for minor equipment violations, but you only stop non-minorities for more serious infractions — moving infractions. It doesn’t tell us that we search minority vehicles 30% of the time, but we only search non-minority vehicles 2% of the time — and we know that when we stop a vehicle, typically, only in a very small percentage of traffic stops do we have a legal cause to search a vehicle. So, population benchmarking is something that we should look at, but it’s really not as informative as we would like it to be.

”We work for the public and we need to be transparent and really show that willingness to submit to the public, at all times, at all costs!”

Other agencies use something called internal benchmarking where it takes an officer and compares their activity with other officers who are similarly situated, meaning they work the same time of day, the geographical location with the same demographics. If their activity is similar to the other officer’s activity, then they’ll declare that no racial profiling is occurring. But you can easily see what the problem with that is — if everyone is doing it, then you’re only going to catch the most egregious violators who show a statistical difference.

That’s why I advocate for a system that shows the difference — quantifies the difference — in how one officer or one agency treats individuals across race as it pertains to vehicle stops, pedestrian stops, and use of force incidences. I think you should look at all of the other benchmarks. It is very meaningful if you focus on the difference in how each officer treats individuals of a different race.

Additionally, if an officer or an agency knows their activity is being monitored, they can alter their behavior for a short period of time. But if you monitor over the long haul — it will show you who I am as an individual officer or who we are as an agency.

Monitoring the differences in how we treat people is important, not only monitoring, but being transparent about it. One of the goals of the procedural justice unit we created, is to do that. So people don’t have to rely on annual reports we put out on racial profiling and the differences in how we treat citizens, we want to create a dashboard that updates in close-to-real-time and illuminates what, if any, differences exist in how we treat individuals. I think in this department we do a great job in treating everyone the same, but this dashboard puts our money where our mouth is and provides citizens with more protection. It also provides the officers with more protection because the metrics are fair. They are protective of the public, but at the same time, they are fair to the officers because they take into account actions where there are compelling governmental interests — meaning we want officers stopping folks driving 20 miles over the speed limit, regardless of whatever else occurs.

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Source: The Cambridge Life

When you took over in Philadelphia, as part of establishing police trust and legitimacy, one of the changes you ordered was to have the department begin tracking car stops for the first time. I find it surprising that tracking stops and collecting the details about race, gender, and other factors is not a uniform, mandatory procedure for all of law enforcement nationwide. I know Alabama recently voted on the issue, but it was not passed, and California enacted a law that will require all law enforcement agencies to collect the data by 2023. There has been much argument against it and agencies say it will be very costly and take officers off the streets. Do you agree with any of those arguments?

I say it all the time: we don’t ask the scary questions because we don’t want to be frightened by the answers. And no, I don’t buy that it’s going to cost millions. I don’t buy the argument that it will be too cumbersome. I take the position that it is a necessary change. It is something that we have to do, and you do it because it’s the right and just thing to do, not because it’s the easy thing to do. I think it’s just that important.

How effective do you believe body cameras are in carrying out procedural justice?

I am a proponent of body cameras, but I think they’re just one tool in a variety of tools for carrying out procedural justice. The presence of body cameras puts everybody on their best behavior. Officers know their behavior is being monitored. Citizens know their behavior is being monitored. It serves as a neutral and detached witness showing how the events unfolded out there on the street. So, I implemented body cameras when I became the Chief of the Philadelphia Housing Authority Police Department. One of the things I did to continually sell them was to make sure the officers knew every time the body camera cleared an officer of an allegation, and that happened quite often, even down to showing an officer wasn’t at fault for an auto accident — I made sure that I published that information on the bulletin board.

You do also have to provide officers with some protection too. The model policy that I ended up going with… if I was reviewing body cam footage looking for major infraction A, and I saw minor infraction B, I couldn’t act on it. So basically, if it was punishable by a two-day suspension or less, then we as reviewers couldn’t act on it. That recognizes it’s hard to do your job 100% right, 100% of the time and we weren’t going to be nit-picking, looking for minor infractions, but it allowed us to address all serious infractions while providing officers with a modicum of protection.

Sir, I really want to thank you for spending time with me today and answering all my questions so candidly. I am so happy that you have decided to become a LEAP speaker, we are fortunate to have you join us.

You’re welcome, and I also want to say that the changes that we implement here, we hope that citizens across this state and across the country seek protections that Cambridge citizens are getting from this police department, that they force that ripple effect — force their police departments to adopt. We’re hoping for the best. Even in the most progressive of agencies, there’s always an undercurrent (of resistance)… an underbelly, however loud of a voice it is, or small a voice… and it’s a shame. We’re so entrenched and immovable in some areas, particularly if it questions our authority or seeks to hold us accountable — and we don’t need to be. We work for the public and we need to be transparent and really show that willingness to submit to the public, at all times, at all costs! I’m trying to beat that mentality into folks, but it’s not always the easiest thing to do.

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Commissioner Branville Bard serves the Cambridge Police Department in Massachusetts and has spent the last 25 years in law enforcement. He’s an expert in crime prevention programs, juvenile justice, transparency and accountability in policing, civil asset forfeiture, police training, community relations, and procedural justice — to name a few. He’s now a speaker for the Law Enforcement Action Partnership (LEAP), a nonprofit group of police and other justice professionals working on public safety solutions.

Monica Westfall is LEAP’s program associate and has spent her entire professional career working with law enforcement professionals in different capacities.

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