Thursday, June 25, 2020

Police Reform? It's Not Possible To Reform A Fundamentally Corrupt Institution

fivethirtyeight |  On its surface, large majorities of Americans support “police reform.” But “reform” is vague and gets complicated fast. For one thing, the police aren’t a single entity. There are more than 15,000 law enforcement agencies scattered throughout the U.S., which means that any change has to be piecemeal. And it’s also hard to figure out what departments are actually doing, or how to compare them. Within a single metro area, multiple departments could be operating under different rules or different standards of rule enforcement, and even using different definitions of particular buzzword-heavy reforms like “community policing.”

That lack of uniformity makes it difficult to compare police departments that have implemented similar policies. “To understand if a police reform is actually working the way you want, you need to be able to see what officers do in the field and figure out whether the reform you’re looking at changed that,” said Emily Owens, a criminology professor at the University of California, Irvine. “We don’t really have the data or the studies right now for me to say with confidence, ‘We know that these reforms work and these don’t.’”

What’s more, the data that exists is full of holes — and bias. Even when researchers try to document whether the police are doing a good job or how departments might improve, they’re often conducting those studies using metrics that help tell only part of the story. Policing data is imperfect. Due to a lack of systematic or reliable data on police misconduct, the fact that the data we do have is mostly from police departments themselves, and an emphasis on crime and police presence, it’s liable to miss important variables such as nature of police interactions with the public, or the fact that plenty of illegal or violent behavior happens in places and populations where police aren’t looking for it.