Viewpoints

Police need to rely more on science, less on their ‘gut’

Community activists, including the Rev. Jesse Jackson, center, block Michigan and Chicago avenues to protest against gun violence on New Year’s Eve in Chicago. Activists are keeping up the pressure on Mayor Rahm Emanuel over shootings by police and gun violence in the city.
Community activists, including the Rev. Jesse Jackson, center, block Michigan and Chicago avenues to protest against gun violence on New Year’s Eve in Chicago. Activists are keeping up the pressure on Mayor Rahm Emanuel over shootings by police and gun violence in the city. Chicago Sun-Times

Tamir Rice, Mike Brown, Eric Garner, Laquan McDonald. To the list of deceased who represent dysfunction and distrust in American law enforcement, we add Quintonio LeGrier and Bettie Jones, Chicago residents shot by police on Dec. 26 during a domestic disturbance call.

Why did it happen? With 1,136 people killed by police in 2015, according to The Guardian, it’s a question often asked but seldom answered to our satisfaction.

Sacramento police Sgt. Renée Mitchell thinks she has a solution to that ambiguity. Like a small but growing cadre of academics, reformers and officers, Mitchell believes police should approach their jobs with more science and less instinct.

Last summer, she founded the American Society of Evidence-based Policing to attempt to change her us-them profession, and create transparency and data-driven best practices.

As implausible and frightening as it sounds, most of the 18,000 law enforcement agencies in the U.S. set their own policies and procedures within the bounds of law.

Few departments have scientifically valid ways of evaluating what officers do, and there is not much national guidance for determining police responses. That means lots of training and protocols but little consensus.

“There is nothing that unifies American policing across the nation,” says Mitchell, who has garnered international notice for her effort. “You really need to be able to say to the public, both based on the evidence and based on the law, we’re not just making stuff up. That is at the heart of the unrest in policing. There is nothing that does that.”

Mitchell envisions the society as a clearinghouse of peer-reviewed research (it’s out there, but scattered and obscure) and recommendations, a “one-stop shop” for understanding what works, and what doesn’t.

Countries including the United Kingdom use the approach, and it’s becoming more common in the U.S.

She uses medicine as an analogy. Before a prescription drug reaches patients, it’s tested in controlled trials – standard scientific practice giving reasonable trust about results.

Similar criminology studies are increasingly available. Researchers including David Weisburd, director of the Center for Evidence-Based Crime Policy at George Mason University in Virginia, and Mitchell, who is finishing a doctorate from Cambridge, have run peer-reviewed trials on issues including body cameras and gang violence.

But oft-stubborn police hierarchies, coupled with limited public access to that research means much of it never translates to front-line practice.

Instead, many departments rely on leaders’ experience, anecdotal advice and a “throw it at the wall and see if it sticks” approach when the public demands immediate change. That, Mitchell says, leads to mistakes and mistrust.

Take “Scared Straight,” the popular anti-crime program started in the 1970s that put at-risk kids face to face with hardcore felons to demonstrate their terrifying trajectory.

Agencies across states jumped on the bandwagon and millions were spent. Turns out it was a bad idea. Studies almost 30 years later found it actually increased re-offense rates compared to control groups, knowledge that could have been discovered earlier with an evidenced-based approach.

“We can’t assume we know what works,” says Stockton police Chief Eric Jones, the first chief to join Mitchell’s organization.

He adopted evidence-based policy in his high-crime, low-budget department to “build back public confidence” because it “shows that we are transparent and accountable.”

With a body like the American Society of Evidence-based Policing, he says, “if something goes wrong, you have an outside entity that says yes, or no, that goes against standard practice.” That unbiased, educated view would be invaluable to the public.

Mitchell and Jones don’t believe their approach is a silver bullet to fixing what’s wrong with policing. But a little research, evidence and science can’t hurt.

Anita Chabria is a freelance writer in Sacramento. Her most recent piece for The Sacramento Bee, “Refugees travel the same paths, generation after generation,” appeared on Dec. 31. anachabria@gmail.com.

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