The Call for Research-Based, Data-Driven Police Support

The following is part 2 of 2 in our IACP Leadership Series conversation between Benchmark CEO Ron Huberman and John Rappaport, Professor of Law, Ludwig and Hilde Wolf Research Scholar, University of Chicago. In this entry, Mr. Rappaport shares his thoughts on where policing fits in dealing with today’s broad societal issues and needs. He also weighs in on the growing importance of data collection and in-depth research to drive and direct applied science for developing more effective reform and police support measures.

RH: John, as we continue our discussion on police reform, I’d like to talk about the fundamentally broader societal pictures that relate to both police and race which have all come together, in many ways, with the police in the middle.

From my experience, a critical part of the equity conversation has to be K-12 spending for schools. It has to be housing. And the discrimination therein. There’s a very long list of things, yet from my vantage point, we are months and months into this dialogue . . . and it has not grown any broader than police. it’s still very narrow. First, do you agree?  And secondly, what do you make of that? What do you make of something, where historically there are people who say, “Hey, yes, we need to reform police”? There’s a real issue there. I hope no one’s denying that reform needs to occur, but why is it not broadened?

JR: I think that a lot of people who are active in policing issues right now would say that’s the backdrop for all of this. They would say that’s exactly what defunding is about. It’s about freeing up funds to be spent on K-12 education or low-income housing or other things. And sometimes you hear variations of the phrase — like divest-invest, right? It’s divest money from the police and invest it elsewhere, or defund and reallocate, or things like this. I agree that the messaging tends to focus exclusively on the policing part. I’m just speculating here, but it could be because there’s more consensus about where the money should come from . . . than what it should go to.

So, it may be that if you walked around and say, “Well, what should we do with this money that we’re going to gain from defunding the police?” You’d probably get a wide variety of opinions. People haven’t coalesced around whether it should be spent on K-12 or housing or what it is. But I do believe that’s on people’s minds. And I do think that’s sort of implicit – though I can understand from the perspective of the police – why it might feel like why are you only talking about us — as though we’re all the good and all the bad that society could be? There’s a lot more going on here. I think that’s right. And I believe it’s probably something that the movement should look to improve about its messaging.

RH: I asked it because I often feel like I hear disconnected conversations. So what are the conversations that happen in close police circles, and what are conversations when the police aren’t there, right? One of the common things that I hear among police – and I think it’s less defensive than it’s likely going to sound from talking to police leaders and others – is that folks are let out of mental institutions with no backup, and ultimately, fall on the police. Schools are failing in many communities, and fundamentally, the police are called in to assist.

These are super problematic, deep issues. And the police very often say, “Well, we’re doing what we can, but we need help from others.” Oddly, I think there’s agreement in many places, but there are different conversations. Of course, it gets harder when they say, “I want to take it out of your budget.”

Moving on with the idea here, I’d like you to give some grades. What do you think the police are doing really well – or have done well, let’s say, over the last 20 years – and where would you say they’re falling down? What does that look like to you, John?

JR: Wow, no one’s ever asked me this question before. First, I think that it’s just essential to acknowledge the variation; there are all sorts of different law enforcement agencies out there. Some are making really serious efforts to improve, and some are not for whatever reasons — lack of will, lack of resources, lack of personnel, whatever it is. Relating back to something you said earlier, I do think the police have become more professional over time. And I think that has had a lot of advantages . . . it’s gotten rid of some of the police corruption that we saw in earlier decades.

But I think some would say that it has had the downside of being accompanied by a sort of almost military-type mindset, chain of command. And there’s a lot to be said for chain of command. The fear is that it makes people feel too much like they’re in the military – and when we civilians see police – it’s almost like seeing a soldier. I don’t know that that’s the way we want to go about things. I think it does feel like the police don’t have the trust of a lot of poorer, marginalized communities – especially communities of color – and I think that’s a problem.

I think that’s a problem for relations. It’s a problem for sentiment. It’s also, frankly, a problem for fighting crime. The clearance rates in some big cities of homicides are awful — and they’re more awful when victims are black or Hispanic. And, of course, there’s multiple causes here. Some of it may be attributed to not taking black lives seriously enough, but another reason might be that you’re not getting a lot of cooperation from people in the community because there’s not a relationship of trust there. And so, I think that it really harms both sides.

I have appreciated the willingness of at least some police departments to collect better data, think more carefully about data, try to learn from data and recognize patterns. Sometimes this is about fighting crime better – understanding predictive policing and things like that – but at other times it’s really about fighting police misconduct better or identifying patterns of bad behavior.

RH: We at Benchmark are not going to disagree with that, John.

JR: Yes, exactly. And I think there’s a lot more to be done in this direction, but better data will allow everyone to understand this institution better. This includes the police, the public, the academics who study it, and the people who work in the space — I think that it’s going to help everyone. And, I believe that the police have been going in the right direction . . . but it needs to go faster, and it needs to become more widespread.

RH: For sure. As someone who’s been in the profession and out of the profession supporting the profession, I feel like there’s been a lot of well-meaning police reform — but there’s so much ahead of us, right? There’s so much to do.

You know John, from a historical context one of the things that – again from conversations that I get to have with police chiefs and others – I don’t often share the fact that, in this moment, there is an airing of historical racial wrongs that come with this, which means it’s not just about fixing the moment.

It’s also about an acknowledgment — where you have generational stories; there’s a story of someone’s great-grandfather and grandfather and father who were mistreated by the police. And it was deeply racial . . . and it was wrong. Now, there’s never been a moment to grieve or a time of sharing the grief. All of a sudden, there’s this profound societal opportunity that’s opened to us — where all of these grievances that have lived there forever – and didn’t have a broader audience – now have an audience. And people are finally paying attention.

To me, that’s at least a piece of it — this generational rage that never got to be spoken outside of the communities that were most impacted. And that brings a huge challenge to police and police leaders, because not only do they have to show good faith efforts, but they need to show that they are systemically changing their institutions. Because even if you win the trust for the moment, the institution is not trusted — so it doesn’t allow for a lot of missteps.

Given that, what does it look like historically from your perspective? You mentioned that you took a look following the incidents in the summer of 2014,

and noted the search increases in Google Trends. Headlines and stories all skyrocketed as it related to police misconduct — and since then, it’s not increased. That is, the actual activity is flat. What does it look like historically to today? Overall, if you were to look at the ’70s, the ’80s, the ’90s, even further back, is there any good data to tell us that story?

JR: There’s not. We have really very little idea of how many people were, say, killed by the police annually before maybe 2013. There were datasets: the FBI had a dataset and the CDC had a dataset — but basically, everyone who’s ever looked at them has concluded that they’re grossly incomplete. The first time we ever had anything close to comprehensive data was actually in 2013. And that was put together by activists.

Then there’ve been some newspapers, the Washington Post has a database as well. But it’s actually very hard to say what the trend has been over a longer period of time — to the extent that I’m uncomfortable even speculating.

RH: It’s really interesting because you would think something as societally important as the number of people who are shot by the police would be recorded. From my historical perspective, and from what I know, it’s not been a huge number . . . but not being able to provide a trend line in 2020, over the last 20 years, is kind of remarkable.

John, I want to finish up on the same issue of data. We’re very grateful that you chair the National Police Early Intervention and Outcome Research Consortium that’s partnered with Benchmark.

You guys are an independent research consortium who operate independently, but we’re in a lucky position being able to share anonymized data with you, in order to help you ask interesting research questions and make all of us smarter. Can you talk a little bit about the consortium and what you hope to accomplish with it — along with the kinds of questions that you ultimately think the data will be able to tell us?

JR: Yes. Well, I’m grateful to be in this position. I’m excited to get my hands into the data and start working. We have a great group of people working with this consortium — criminologists, sociologists, economists, law professors. I think the overarching question that everyone wants to answer is, how do we reduce this problem? How do we make it so that people don’t need to be out on the streets? How do we have it work so that fewer people are hurt or killed by the police? I think it’ll make the police happier — and I think it’ll make the public happier. How do we do this?

I think the way I conceive the research path is it consists of two directions; what we would call basic science and applied science. Sometimes we’re still going to be studying what seem like very basic questions — what are the career trajectories of successful officers, and the path of officers who end up getting fired?  Likewise, learn more about the circumstances under which officers use force, and possibly, whether there are particular patterns of escalation that we can see in large-scale data that might help us point the way towards solutions.

Furthermore, how do officers behave under different kinds of circumstances — whether it’s the number of hours they’re working in a week, or the weather, or all sorts of other considerations like that? Those are basic science questions. They’re not going to be something that you can immediately cash out as a tool to improve police behavior. But nevertheless, advancing our understanding of police behavior is always going to take us in that direction.

And then I think there are the applied questions — and I think it’s a chance to try to learn more about interventions. Obviously, one of the things Benchmark does with its software is predict – with a greater accuracy than prior tools – what officers are at the highest risk of having an adverse incident. What we don’t know enough about yet is what to do then? I think there’s a sense of actions like recommend retraining, or counseling of some sort. But I think those are somewhat empty concepts. We actually know very little about what kinds of trainings work and don’t work — and what kinds of interventions, that might be very different from retraining somebody, that might actually work more effectively to help prevent the problem.

Maybe an early intervention system and red flag is the sign that you need a day off — you’re fatigued, you’re stressed, you’re worn out, or maybe you need a new setting, right? Maybe it’s not always about retraining. And then can we tell the difference between officers who maybe do need some counseling or training, and the ones who just need a change of scenery or a break? These are the questions that, I think, this unique source of data will hopefully allow us to get traction on.

RH: For sure. The answer to that critical intervention question; how do you support officers to be better at the craft of policing? What’s interesting, having been in the education world and coming back to policing, is that in education for K-12 specifically, there’s just a huge amount of research around what professional development is effective — in terms of the quantity, the type, the application . . . even how does professional development impact student achievement. Research has really helped provide a guide of how teachers can just become better teachers. In policing, as important a profession as it is and critically important to society, there’s nothing.

You can’t find any evidence-based research to say, “Wow, these types of interventions help the police to be better police, right? It makes them better at their job.” We’ve given the police very difficult challenges, but yet haven’t pulled in the support or just the humanity to help them be great cops, the kinds of police that society is yearning for — gifted at de-escalation and interact in a way that’s trusted and well-received. By the way, I’ve worked with tons of cops who do that incredibly well every single day. The goal is for the ones who don’t do it so well, how do we help them be as effective as the others?

With that, John, I am grateful for your participation in our 2020 IACP Leadership Series. Thank you so much — we’re all looking forward to learning more about the work your consortium is conducting.

This interview from October 2020 has been edited for clarity.