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In a Time of Crisis, We Need a New Language of Justice

Dr. Phillip A. Goff, the president and cofounder of the Center for Policing Equity, is developing a new vocabulary for racism and policing.

Gerald Herbert/AP

If you’ve found yourself aching for some semblance of sanity amid all the political bluster lately, Dr. Phillip Attiba Goff feels your pain. As a social psychology professor and former Visiting Scholar at the Harvard Kennedy School, he has, like many of us, been trying to come to grips with the vicissitudes of the presidential campaign season. The problems of racism, crime, and policing have come up frequently in presidential debates and among political news coverage. But these discussions are often out of alignment with reality.

Goff understands this perhaps too viscerally, given that he’s been working with dozens of police departments across the U.S. on rooting out the racial biases and mistreatment commonly found in law enforcement. His think tank, Center for Policing Equity, has been gathering data on exactly how entrenched racism is among U.S. police forces. He is currently developing what’s being billed as “the first national database on racial disparities in police stops and use of force,” with funding from the National Science Foundation. The U.S. Department of Justice has also tapped Goff to help launch the National Initiative for Building Community Trust and Justice, to help establish better relationships between police and historically disempowered populations.

This means that Goff knows more than enough about these issues to recognize that some of the urban policy prescriptions espoused by Donald Trump and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani are insane. And he knows that a lot of this “get tougher on crime” talk is driving a lot of people insane. So Goff’s latest venture is the development of a new justice-based language to combat the insanity.

This week, Goff is rolling out his new “Justice as a Second Language” concept at New York’s John Jay College, one of America’s leading academic institutions on criminal justice, and where he serves as the first Franklin A. Thomas Professor in Policing Equity. The presidential debates have finally come to a close, but the public debate around race, crime, and policing is certain to continue. Goff is hoping that this new language will give people another way to discuss these issues.  

Explain what you mean by “justice as a second language.”

I’m sure you have been at a social event and someone has been foul to you—someone insulted you, or they said something crazy about black and brown people, or about politics, or even about you in particular. One of the reactions you must have had at least once is you stood there stunned and didn’t say anything. But then later that night, or the next day, or a week later, you were talking to yourself about what you wish you would have said back when the person made their crazy statement. What’s going on there is, you feel a little bit insane like, How did they think that was OK? How could they talk to me like that? Why didn’t anyone else step in?

With those questions, what we’re doing is trying to develop a language to reassert not just our self image, but also our understanding of what the world is and what it should be. We hear someone come along and say, “Well, actually it was Hillary Clinton who started the birther movement,” and, “What we need is more law and order,” and, “Stop-and-frisk was effective”—but that doesn't comport with what we know from reality.

We have to develop a language of justice, which can help us not just in saving face or wiping our indignities clean, but which also helps us maintain our sanity. Sanity is an under-appreciated and undervalued thing, not just as a psychological concept, but also as a legal concept. And that’s what’s at stake with these elections. It’s what’s at stake for criminal justice reform: It’s our sanity, and we need weapons to protect that sanity. And I’m arguing that a language of justice will protect that sanity.

What does this language look and sound like in practice when it comes to policing?

When I am doing TV or engaging with students or with policymakers and we’re behind closed doors, I often hear, “OK, you gotta admit it, the reason that we’re seeing these uses of force among black people is because they are noncompliant. It’s because they’re out there doing the crimes in the first place. It’s because there’s something about them. Right?”

There’s no ability to acknowledge that if crime plays a role in racial disparities in these outcomes, that it plays a role because of the disenfranchisement, the economic oppression, and lack of educational opportunities that were not the fault of that community. There are larger structural elements at play. So when people say, “Really it’s the fault of black people,” what’s happening is they are blaming you for what they are doing to you, and it can make you feel insane.

We need a language that says, “Actually, I can test that statistically, and it turns out that while crime may play some role, it’s not the only role.” Also, we have a language that includes elements of history and power. Crime has never been a genetic element of a people. It’s not a choice like a favorite color or a favorite music is. It’s the result of structural elements that are never within the control of the people who end up committing these street-level crimes.

There are also groups of people who get to decide what is and isn’t criminal, and those groups of people don’t look like the groups of people going to jail—and that’s not an accident. That’s what’s important and that’s how a language of justice can help keep you sane.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the comedian and news analyst John Oliver have both recently suggested that the problem with policing is the culture of policing itself. Have you found this to be true in your research?

I think it would be hard for us to have data that says policing is fundamentally corrupt. I think, however, it’s easy to say as historical fact, that when the state is engineered to produce more racial hierarchy and to exacerbate and maintain it, it uses the elements of the state at its disposal to do that. So if America is not interested and invested in racial equality, then of course it’s going to use municipal law enforcement to do more of the same. That’s not a critique of law enforcement so much as it is a critique of America. And that part of the conversation we do need to have, because it’s always the case that law enforcement is the first and most physical element of the state.

As a result, when the laws of the nation are racially biased, as they have been, there’s not going to be much of a choice if you’re working in law enforcement other than to be racially biased.

Think about responses to 911 calls. Let’s say that I’m a chief and someone calls 911, and they say, “There are these suspicious people hanging out on the corner, I want you to get rid of them.” Now, you may know as the police chief that this individual is just scared of black and brown people. But if, as the chief, my response is, “Hey m’am, sir, that’s probably just your racism, we’re not going to reply to that,” then I’m probably not going to keep my job for very long. So, policing is not just a force in and of itself, it is also a tool of the citizenry, and a tool of the state. And that has to be part of the broader conversation if we’re going to talk about policing reform.

You recently released findings from your study of racial disparities in the use of force and searches by the Austin Police Department. What was the most significant takeaway from that?

We developed what we called the National Justice Database analytical framework, where we’ve produced the set of questions to let us know what the possible explanations are for racial disparities—and by the way, we see disparities in every integrated setting. The first of these explanations is found at the community level—not in what the community does, like committing crimes, but how the community is treated. So racial discrimination aggregates as a community-level explanation, and also educational inequality, housing inequality, healthcare inequality, employment inequality; that’s all one level of explanation. The second level of explanation is policing: Their policies, their culture, and individual officer-level biases. And the third level of explanation is relationship: The trust between communities and police. What we’ve laid out is a roadmap for how every police department can analyze that.

Now, in Austin we were only able to look at community-level explanations. And so the key takeaway from Austin was that community-level explanations are insufficient to explain racial disparities in the use of force. Meaning you can’t just reduce it to crime, or poverty, or segregation, or bad housing situations, or any of that stuff. There’s a level of racial disparity that’s left over after all of that. But more important to me is that now we have a blueprint for how we go systematically—city by city, state by state, covering the entire United States—to figure out what is the role of bias and how much of the bias belongs to the police department as opposed to upstream factors.

Does the U.S. need a nationwide stop-and-frisk program as Donald Trump has suggested?

There is nothing right about what he said, and there is nothing feasible about what he said. It’s hard to say what’s more of an indictment, his lack of legal and racial sensitivities around the disparities for the style of stop-and-frisk that we’re talking about, or the lack of understanding of what the president can and cannot do. But both are massive indictments of his capacity to lead in a public space.  

First, we understand that certain forms of proactive policing can be good, but we also understand that, when those forms of proactive policing are perceived to be illegitimate, biased, or even racist, then that reduces compliance with the law. It literally is criminogenic.

When Trump says we need more New York-style stop-and-frisk, there is good data and good analyses that demonstrate, no, that will not reduce crime, and it will also be racially disparate. It will unnecessarily punish communities that are not disproportionately engaging in crime. So he is just wrong.

On top of that, the president just can’t do that. It’s like the president saying he’s going to outlaw AIDS, and now it’s illegal for HIV to exist and therefore no one will get sick from it again. That’s just not a power you have. So there’s no element of the U.S. Constitution or a state constitution or a municipal statute that would allow for the president to come in and say, “This is the way you are going to police now.”

You may recall that the Attorney General just announced last week that there will be new data collection [tracking policing killings], but you’ll also note that those data collections are voluntary. The reason is because the president and Attorney General literally cannot force the situation to be otherwise. So to make a proposal like that, it shows a fundamental misunderstanding of how anything works.

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