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One year later, panel outlines the limits of police reform and accountability efforts

One year later, panel outlines the limits of police reform and accountability efforts

Picture of Kellie  Schmitt
George Floyd mural in Minneapolis.

When reporters tackle the topic of policing, they often focus their coverage on highly newsworthy events, such as last year’s police killing of George Floyd.

What’s often lacking in local coverage, though, is the typical ways communities interact with the police, said ProPublica’s Topher Sanders, a co-author of the award-winning investigation on pedestrian violations “Walking While Black.” When reporters examine these daily interactions over time, they begin to understand how policing really works in their area.

“We’re talking about the everyday occurrences, the things that really begin to create rifts between the community and the police,” he said in a Center for Health Journalism webinar this week.

One year after Floyd’s death, Sanders joined Frank Edwards, an assistant professor of criminal justice at Rutgers University, and Andrea Headley, an assistant professor at the McCourt School of Public Policy at Georgetown University, to discuss the latest efforts to advance police accountability, the research supporting them, and how reporters can best cover this evolving story.

Clear patterns in police killings

Since Floyd’s death, police in the United States have killed more than 1,100 people, said Edwards, a sociologist who studies social control, the welfare state and race.

Black men have an “exceptionally high risk” of dying from police — a one in 1,000 lifetime chance, about two and a half times more likely than white men, he said. The risk is also disproportionately higher for American Indian/Alaskan Native and Latino men, and it’s especially pronounced during young adulthood, especially for men.

“When we look at inequalities and in the likelihood of being killed by police, we see clear patterns across race and gender,” he said. “This is a pattern of violence clearly structured by age, by sex and by race.”

The negative health effects go beyond the risk of death, he said. Living in highly policed neighborhoods creates stressors that permeate the entire community and contribute to health problems such as high blood pressure and obesity. Living in neighborhoods where there has been a police killing can also have “tremendous mental health consequences,” as people live in a perpetual state of hypervigilance and relive the traumatic experience, he said.  

While data on policing can be fragmented and incomplete, Edwards recommended resources such as the Center for Policing Equity, the Stanford Open Policing Project, and Mapping Police Violence.

What reform research tells us

Police reform efforts have a long history in the United States, and recommendations are often repeated over the years, said Headley, a visiting scholar at the National Police Foundation.

“To me, it really begs the question of evaluating whether or not they work,” she said.

But there’s still little conclusive research on many of these strategies, she said. And some efforts might work well in one particular area but not improve all desired outcomes.

For example, some research shows implicit bias training can improve officer knowledge but has no impact on police enforcement outcomes or disparities. Community policing has a positive impact on public satisfaction and the perception of police legitimacy but has a limited effect on crime reduction, research shows. While crisis intervention training is “promising,” there is limited evidence on its ability to deescalate situations, avoid the use of force, and aid conflict resolution, she said.  

There is, however, evidence to suggest that hiring women can lead to less use of force and lower levels of force. And some research links more officers of color with decreases in crime complaints, arrests and use of force when compared to white officers, she said. There’s mixed evidence on body cameras with some research showing effectiveness in reduced use of force, arrests and complaints while other research suggests cameras make no difference by those measures.

In addition to calls for reform policing, there are also calls to defund policing, investing those resources in communities’ social services, health, economic, and educational opportunities instead. Some research suggests community-based programs — such as improved access to mental health services and expanded substance abuse treatment centers — can lead to crime reductions. But the jury is still out on  the overall “cost-benefit tradeoffs” associated with these shifts in funding, she said.

A powerful case study  

The “Walking While Black” project — reported by Sanders and Kate Rabinowitz of ProPublica, and Benjamin Conarck, then of the Florida Times-Union — originated from a viral video of a young Black man threatened with jail time after jaywalking. Conarck initially covered the events in a daily story.  

Sanders was intrigued and reached out to Conarck. Together, they started digging into the data to see just how common these kinds of police interactions were.

Instead of asking police departments for data — a request that likely would have been met with resistance, he said — the reporters turned to Florida’s statewide database of all infraction citations. When they started asking police departments questions about the disproportionate number of Black folks receiving these tickets, Sanders was given responses such as: “We’re doing this to save lives.”

To evaluate that claim, the reporters cross-referenced the locations where tickets were issued to the places where pedestrians were most often killed. Black census tracks had more pedestrian tickets, even when there weren’t correspondingly higher pedestrian deaths.

The database, along with the names of people and the locations of the tickets, helped the reporters find personal stories to bring the data to life. Lawyers were also a good source for finding people who had contested their tickets.

The reporting team also studied the traffic laws and used Google street view to see whether crossing the street in some locations really violated the law. Often, cops didn’t know the nuances of the law. About 60% of the pedestrian tickets in the four largest counties fell into this category of “bad tickets.”

While data is instrumental, Sanders also stressed the importance of developing cop sources. These are essential in understanding how the rank and file see these issues, and how they’re executing the commands they’re given, he said.

“The only way to learn the ins and the outs of how the cops operate is to actually talk to them … not just the top brass for comment,” he said. “That’s the way you really start to learn about these processes.” 

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Watch the full presentation here:

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