Analyzing Police Misconduct: The Data Behind Racial Profiling

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The police killings of George Floyd and other African-American civilians have generated numerous studies and policy briefs on the roots of police misconduct. But while many identify racial profiling as a driver for these tragedies, few truly understand its role in policing, much less how to eradicate it.

Alejandro Del Carmen, Associate Dean of the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Tarleton State University in Fort Worth, Tx., believes it all comes down to the data.

An instructor in the Law Enforcement Management Institute of Texas, Del Carmen has spent the last two decades using data and statistical analysis to train and educate thousands of police officers, and every police chief in Texas, on proper policing practices. He has worked as a federal monitor overseeing federal consent decrees in New Orleans and Puerto Rico.

In his new book, Racial Profiling In Policing: Beyond The Basics, Del Carmen uses data, along with his expert knowledge and experience, to provide an objective and neutral basis for an in-depth discussion of race, racism and policing in America.

In a recent conversation with The Crime Report, Del Carmen discussed why a meaningful conversation on racial profiling cannot happen without first acknowledging the lived experiences of African Americans, why efforts to train police about implicit bias are often unsuccessful, and what city officials need to do if they want police departments that are sensitive to these issues.

This is an edited and abridged version of the conversation.

The Crime Report: Why did you decide to write this book?

Alejandro Del Carmen: I’ve devoted 22 years of my life to the study of racism generally and, specifically, racial profiling in policing. As a first-generation immigrant to the United States from Nicaragua who endured civil war and communism, I realized that there was a different battle going on here: a battle of racism. I kept telling myself that at least in Nicaragua I knew who the enemy was and where the bullets were coming from. But in the U.S. you really didn’t know.  You could show up somewhere and people would question what you were doing there because of the way you looked. Even as a 12- year-old, having endured what most people shouldn’t, I was intrigued by the notion that a great country like the United States, with its Constitution and all the ideals that it represents, could allow such behavior to take place.

The next question that preoccupied me, as a social scientist and criminologist, was how can we really understand this and identify it. In order to eradicate racial profiling, you have to know what it looks like. Everybody seems to know what racism in policing looks like, but very few people understand how to get rid of it, or even whether or not what they’re seeing is in fact racism. One of the questions I had to answer was how could I speak to the American people, to the consumer of information who doesn’t have a Ph.D., who doesn’t wear a badge, from a scientific perspective? That’s where the book came from. It’s an honest dialogue with the science.

TCR: The book starts off with a history lesson on racial profiling in this country. Why do you feel it is so important to understand how racial profiling actually became encoded into the DNA of our country?

ADC: We cannot understand our current state of affairs, relevant to racism, without fully understanding the history of how we got here. How can you talk about George Floyd without understanding the perspective of the African-American experience in the United States?

When I train police chiefs in Texas, I always explain that when an African-American shows up anywhere they have to write a check, they are often writing the last name of a slave owner. You cannot disinherit that reality from the African-American experience. Caucasians can afford to ignore that history. But for a person of color, particularly black people in this country, that is the reality they face every day.

alejandro del carmen

Alejandro Del Carmen

Regardless of which side of the aisle you’re on, or what political agenda you follow, you cannot disinherit the reality of what African Americans went through as slaves, how they were brought here against their will, sold in town squares based on appearances and abilities, how families were torn apart, how women were raped. It made sense to inform anyone who reads this book on history first before we can even talk about racism today.

TCR: How does the culture of policing in both the past and present reflect a narrow and white-washed understanding of reality?

ADC: When you look at the history of policing, and the model that is in place right now, you have to remember that policing was organized to address crimes committed by the less-than-average citizen. They were never meant to look for the white-collar criminal. In many ways the history of policing is of a paramilitary structure established to protect the economic interests and property of the wealthy.

You can spin it and say that they have the best interests of the common folks in mind, that they address violent crime. All of that may be true, but all of that is collateral. The concept of police was to protect property and communities of propertied human beings. If you are not part of that community, then you are seen as a threat. Add to that somebody who doesn’t look like most people, who presents themselves differently, plus the fact that human beings fear what we do not know, and you end up with racism.

And this is to no fault of law enforcement personnel, but look at who the job enlisted. It enlisted individuals who were physically strong.  In New York and Boston, the Irish lined up and used law enforcement as a way to empower themselves as a minority. I have written that Hispanics have become the new Irish in America. A lot of Hispanic immigrants today have found that law enforcement is a way to not only become a citizen who is accepted by the community, but also a source of authority.

That is what the Irish did to empower themselves as people. Law enforcement became a job for blue-collar workers, who were very strong, and who wanted to empower themselves. And it had good pay and decent retirement. So, instead of a path to contribute to society, it became an avenue to get ahead while enforcing the laws of the wealthy and propertied.

Since its inception, policing has lent itself to racist tendencies. Even today, who does law enforcement attract? On one hand, really good people, but on another hand, people who don’t have the criteria of the Constitution in mind and who certainly don’t feel that equality is part of that Constitution.

TCR: Your book focuses on the need for data when tackling the issue of racial profiling. How do you police departments fail when it comes to data analysis?

ADC: When police officers tell me that they’re reviewing bodycam or dashcam videos to identify if racial profiling occurred, I often ask them what that looks like and I get a blank stare from some because they think I’m asking them the obvious. But absent a situation like Rodney King, where you have white cops beating down a black man in the street, how do you identify racial profiling when part of the equation is the intent of the officer? That’s where data comes in. Data is a substantial part of the equation, but it isn’t a cure-all resource. If I’m a medical doctor, and I were to gauge your temperature, and you’re at 100 degrees, I would not say that you’re dying from cancer or have COVID. I would have to look for other symptoms and then begin the process of deduction to figure out what you’re suffering from.

In that same way, data is an indicator. And a strong indicator. Many police departments collect data, and collect a lot of data. Some chiefs in Boston, Chicago and New York brag about how much data they collect. The calamity that I see across the U.S. is the fact that very few data points are actually reviewed and analyzed. Police departments generally collect all of this data in reports that are cosmetically friendly; they have graphics and percentages that the common consumer of data can look at and consider informative. But how can a department allow individuals like the officers that ended up killing George Floyd to go out on the street?  I guarantee that the data points are there and if somebody had been paying attention to them they could have flagged this individual and got him off the streets.

The data points are there but no one is paying attention to them because the traditional law enforcement mentality from the command standpoint is that their job is to fight crime.

They get the data points so they can inform the public, give them a nice report, get their crime analysts to do a dog-and-pony show, but does that data become an actionable component used to direct policy, affect the way departments conduct every day operations, and affect the behavior of police officers?  We see toolsets like early warning systems, Comstat, sophisticated software programs used to fight crime, predict crime, and figure out where officers are psychologically and behaviorally; but there are still thousands of data points that are being missed.

The irony is that they spend millions of dollars on this software and no one is looking at them from a critical perspective to look for what we call patterns and practices. What happens across the department? What are some of the things we are seeing? Why is use of force utilized excessively in this area of town if the crime in that area is very low? Why is it that in minority areas there seems to be an overzealous component where more tickets are given than in other areas?

That’s where the data comes in. These are important questions that could have legitimate answers but they’re not being asked.

TCR: Where does the responsibility lie to ask these questions?

ADC: Police chiefs are responsible to city management. There are roughly 18,000 law enforcement agencies around the U.S.. The FBI estimates about a million officers are on the streets today. Most of these agencies are in remote, rural areas and report to a small city council.

Most of the people in that council don’t have the ability to understand what is at stake. They think that the traditional role of law enforcement, to protect and serve, is the primary objective. The key is for the population and leadership of any town or city to ask their police command staff the right question: is the Constitution being adhered to? Are we engaging in best practices? Are our police officers being trained by the best sources and being held accountable for that training? Instead, what usually ends up happening is an exercise of cosmetic surgery. Cosmetically, the department has really nice uniforms, really nice patrol cars, wonderful facilities, great policies that they’ve borrowed and copied, and advanced software systems. From this perspective, the department is amazing.

But go deeper than that. What do they do with that great-looking tech and data? They have policies in place, but does the average officer understand them? A lot of police officers don’t, but they’ve signed off on them because they’ve read them. Accountability is a big word. How do you ensure that the command staff holds their troops accountable? If no one is holding the command staff accountable they’re not going to hold anyone else accountable. That dysfunctionality begins with the city leadership.

There are models out there in places where departments are beginning to understand that it’s not just what they do, but what they don’t do that needs to be addressed. That is also an issue of city leadership because they’re the ones that hire and fire the chief. Who do they hire? Is someone who looks good on paper really the best person for the job from an accountability perspective?

TCR: How do the courts often fail when it comes to utilizing data in their decisions?

ADC: There is a divide between lawyers and those of us who are data-driven scholars. When lawyers engage in a racism lawsuit, they do so from the legal basis of what’s been violated and how much money is the client consequently going to receive. For us, it’s an issue of how do we know if that violation is scientifically there.

My role is very difficult. I end up making everybody upset. I walk in a courtroom or I talk to the city counsel, and I’m either too soft on the cops or too harsh on the cops. But, at the end of the day, I say what the data actually means, not what people want to hear. For me there are always opportunities to dig deeper and find out the truth about a police officer or a police agency. The data is there. And the data is an indicator.

When people ask what the toolset is for identifying a racist cop, I tell them to look at the search data: the social media, complaints, bodycam video usage, etc. All of those components are part of the toolset that is, again, often ignored. The most difficult thing in the courts is that the judiciary looks at this from a legal perspective. Lawyers are not statisticians, they’re not the ones to look at the data, and they’re mostly advocating for a particular side or think they understand the math. But they really don’t. The judges look at the evidence, but if they don’t have a background in mathematics and don’t understand how the data plays out, they’re going to miss the point that is trying to be made.

You often find yourself in an oasis of information where either side is trying to manipulate your stance or exaggerate it and extrapolate it to use in support of their position. Then you have a judge who may insist upon fairness, but only has a certain amount of time and knowledge to perform their duties. You’re an isolated component amid these individuals who are just trying to get to the next case.

TCR: Reform efforts often emphasize new training programs. Why do you feel this can be the wrong direction to take?

ADC: Training is a reminder. You have three types of training in a law enforcement scenario: academy training that forms you as an officer, field experience training where you ride along with a superior officer who shows you what you need to do on the job, and in-service training that police receive once a year, depending on the institution they work for.

For example, the state of Texas may say that every officer in the state has to receive eight hours of implicit bias training within the next 24 months, or a local police department may say that their officers are not writing good reports so they need to do a report writing class. Training is important, not only as a source of information but also as a reminder of what officers should and should not do.

However, coming from a guy who has trained over 15,000 police officers and every chief of police in Texas for the last 22 years, if you hire the wrong person for the job there is no training in the world that is going to change that. I believe in training, but trainers can’t perform miracles. If you bring someone in who is already jaded, who is racist, and who has been brought up as a racist, someone who should never have become a cop, there is nothing I can do in training to change that person’s mindset or heart. As we continue to challenge the profession in years to come, it makes more sense for law enforcement to invest their resources into their ability to hire “trainable people” who don’t show implicit bias to an extent that can’t be addressed and fixed. I talk to significantly large agencies with 2,000 to 3,000 officers, and when I ask them how many recruiters they have, they tell me two or three.

When I ask them what kind of budget they have, they tell me not much. So, they get desperate and they lower their standards. And the less emphasis you place on a recruiting budget and recruiting strategy, the more difficult it is going to be for those trainers, whether in service or at the academy. Law enforcement loves to use the word training. If somebody does something wrong they say it’s a training issue. So, they send you off to do training, because they think somehow they can fix you that way.

In reality, training is not the answer. If you want to correct the problem, you have to go back to the roots of it. That’s why in every incident where excessive force is used, I always say not only is that a failure of training, of supervision, and a failure of the department, but also of the recruiter and the hiring process. That person should have never made it through. Period.

TCR: What is the importance of field training officers (FTOs) and sergeants in how a new officer develops?

ADC: You have a 21-year-old who goes through the academy and goes through 6-8 months of training every day for 40 hours a week. They do marches, runs, study the criminal code, self-defense, report writing, all the things that cops have to go through. Then they are given an assignment to work with a FTO, sometimes they rotate through two or three, and these officers evaluate a new officer’s performance in the field.

The idea is to incorporate your training to real-life scenarios. Are you following those thing that we taught you at the academy? One of the first things that those FTOs say is forget what you learned at the academy, I’m going to show you how to be a real cop. If that person is jaded, has been at the job for too long, doesn’t really want to be there, all of that negative behavior is going to rub off on an impressionable officer.

By the time they finish, and go on their own, you often find that whatever they learned from the FTO is what they display in their behavior. The most important rank in law enforcement structure is the sergeant. The sergeant is the hands-on supervisor who is made aware of 90 percent of what is going on with officers on the job. The captains, the deputy chiefs, the commanders, they’re doing their own thing; and, unless there’s a major incident, you’re not going to see them. That sergeant shows up when a supervisor is needed, they sign the immediate evaluations of officers, recommending them for commendations, or writing them up [for infractions]. Sometimes, those sergeants suffer from a desire of being liked by their officers and instead of being supervisors they become good buddies. When that happens, and sergeants forget their role, you begin to see that dysfunctionality, and officers begin to get away with stuff that they shouldn’t because the sergeant engages in what the Department of Justice calls deliberate indifference. They look the other way and let it happen.

TCR: Consent decrees are often used to bring broken police departments into line. What are some of the complications to the success of these mandates?

ADC: A consent decree is a last resort. It is not a quick fix or a cure all. I’ve worked in two of them. I served as federal monitor in New Orleans and Puerto Rico. It’s a very difficult process to go through. They happen when the dysfunctionality of a department has reached such levels that there needs to be some federal intervention in order for the Constitution of the United States to be the main point of that department’s police service. Some of them don’t work all the time. Some of the components of the consent decree should be adjusted. Such as how a team of federal monitors is picked.

[Former Attorney General] Jeff Sessions has said the process has become almost like a business where huge law firms are applying to become federal monitors for consent decrees with very little or no experience in policing. Just because you’re a lawyer doesn’t mean you understand how to do that job. Just because you’ve been a cop all of your life doesn’t mean you understand data. The more successful consent decrees have a mixed team of monitors with academics, criminologists, lawyers, and former police chiefs who have all had some experience.

When you have a blended team like that you end up with good results.  How do you know a consent decree is working? The absence of major issues. The absence of a shooting and various scandals that would otherwise happen if the team wasn’t in place. Often, though, you also have consent decrees where the party being sued is still fighting it.

That delays things further and costs millions of dollars. What you want in a consent decree is for a police department to be transformed so that the culture of the department is one where the unusual becomes an exception not the norm.

If somebody goes out on a limb and shoots someone for no reason it becomes a scandal as opposed to something that happens all the time. If that is the norm, you probably are in need of a consent decree because the violation of the constitution has become a standard. Flipping things around requires people to be fired, to be indicted, sometimes both, and sometimes it requires a revamping of an entire department and starting from scratch. There’s no way you’re going to do that unless you have the intervention of the federal government, and specifically the authority of a federal judge, behind you to hold that department in contempt and hold them accountable. The consent decree is only as powerful as the judges authority and their ability to do the job.

TCR: You point out that everything changed after George Floyd. What changes do you see; and is defunding the police part of it?

ADC: George Floyd changed everything because it made the average Caucasian individual in the United States entertain the possibility that police excessive use of force can be a reality. In previous incidences, when you look at the deaths of African Americans at the hands of police officers, I would always hear a caveat or a suggested context from white people to excuse why force, even lethal force, was used.

With George Floyd you see a man who is on the ground, who is gasping for air, crying out for his mother, and also saying I can’t breathe. You see all these cops around him, some with their knees on his back and head, not paying attention to what he is saying on video and nine minutes later he dies. There is no caveat. There is no excuse. This individual died at the hands of a police officer because he was accused of having a forged bill. That’s inexcusable in this country.

So, for a white individual who didn’t believe that racism is in place, didn’t believe that these things happen, the unbelievable became believable. They were introduced to the concept that this was possible and likely in this country. That’s why it changed everything. However, I don’t like the term defunding the police. The original premise of the defunding of the police was to restructure the funding and orient cops towards community policing and towards things that will save lives and improve community relations.

But if the premise or intention was ever meant to take away funding from law enforcement all together and put something else in place I don’t see it. Logically, you don’t remove resources from those individuals who need it. If you’re saying you’re going to redo the equation and reuse the resources, let’s talk about that. I’ve been in discussions nationally where people who brought that term into the equation have said they regret it because it was taken to a place that wasn’t their intention.

If it’s about reimagining law enforcement in the context of how the funding is being utilized, what the need is right now, and how we can make it a better field, those are the real questions that should be asked. Sadly, that has been lost in political debate.

Isidoro Rodriguez is a contributor to TCR.

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