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Big data shows racial bias in police behavior

Engadget Engadget 16/06/2016 Jon Fingas
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Stanford University just delivered further proof that massive, readily available data sets can solve tricky law enforcement problems. School researchers combing through a mix of 28,119 Oakland Police Department stop reports, officer body camera footage and community surveys have learned that there are "significant" racial biases at play. OPD officers are not only more likely to stop a black person, but far more likely to conduct searches of black people, even though they weren't any more likely to find something incriminating. Officers more frequently handcuffed black people without arresting them, too. And the pattern is the same regardless of the crime rate in a given region.

The dialogue from the body cameras has its own share of insights. Officers more often brought up the subject of parole or probation when stopping black people. However, they were far more likely to mention the reason for a stop to a white person.

Stanford is quick to mention that these gaps in treatment shrink with experience (veterans are less likely to cuff someone without an arrest). It also stresses that there isn't hard evidence of conscious, overt racism. The police may not be intentionally treating black people differently, but there is an "institutional problem" that leads to unfair treatment.

The good news? Stanford conducted this data study in tandem with the OPD, and it's implementing the university's recommendations. That includes improving how the department collects and studies data, making that data more accessible and using body camera footage for audits and training. As you'd hope, the force is also educating officers to both minimize bias and identify troublemakers. These solutions won't apply everywhere and certainly aren't guaranteed to end racism in law enforcement, but the very hint of progress suggests that the data collection was worthwhile.

Stanford University

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