The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
March 10, 2017

Joining data and lived experiences to reduce violent police-citizen interactions

March 11, 2017

Today in Austin, Urban Institute researchers convened a candid conversation between local activists and law enforcement. The panel discussion, part of the social impact track at SXSW Interactive, brought together Austin police chief Brian Manley and Black Lives Matter Austin founder Margaret Haule, with a number of community organizers in attendance, for a discussion on how to reduce violent police-citizen interactions.

In an introduction, Urban’s Anamika Dwivedi explained that researchers are privileged to view issues from a variety of angles, but often “as outsiders and at a distance,” gathering and analyzing data. She invited panelists to engage in a solutions-oriented conversation about transparency, accountability, and the importance of data in benchmarking the progress of communities and law enforcement towards stronger, more trusting relationships. 

Data, transparency, and accountability

For an emotionally challenging issue, punctuated by traumatic events—police shootings of unarmed residents, resident shootings of police, and use of force captured on camera—and rooted in so many years of tension between communities and police, it was useful to anchor the conversation with empirical evidence.

Nancy La Vigne, director of Urban’s Justice Policy Center, shared data about the relationship between communities and law enforcement. Less than a third of residents of low-income, high-crime neighborhoods say they trust the police, and over half believe they’re judged by police based on their race or ethnicity. Just 37 percent say they feel safe around police. 

Chief Manley spoke to the value of police departments collecting data of their own—and sharing it publicly—to create a culture of transparency. 

“Police departments across this country maintain a lot of data,” said Manley. “It is the community’s data as soon as we can put it out. We have a responsibility to be as transparent as possible so communities know what’s going on.”

But perhaps the biggest challenge lies with organizers, who must leverage data to make their own deeply compelling experiences persuasive to the likes of elected officials. Haule called for comprehensive, consistent data, both across jurisdictions and throughout the criminal justice system, from arrest to incarceration.

“We have to be more comprehensive,” Haule explained. “Deaths take place not just in police custody, but also within prisons. We need that data available, too. A lot of data is at the point of arrest or citation. We need data when the person is being transported, and we need data when that person is in prison.”

How can we increase law enforcement accountability? Panelists identified body-worn cameras as a potential solution, but not a panacea. 

Manley said that his department is eager to get cameras in place, but Haule expressed concern about the lack of penalties for officers who turn off their cameras. La Vigne cited evidence that cameras have an impact on reducing police use of force, but are only one tool, and need to be “part of a larger effort to change officer behavior.”

Where do we go from here?

When we applied for the opportunity to convene this panel, we wrote about why it was important for Urban to have a presence at an event like SXSW, a forum for innovators, socially conscious entrepreneurs, and others looking to learn and address today’s most challenging issues. Today’s panel met that expectation, and the audience was eager to identify solutions.

One attendee called the data La Vigne shared “jarring but not very surprising,” and asked whether there was historic data to act as a point of comparison. 

La Vigne explained that while we have data on perceptions of police, they don't capture the perspectives of residents most affected by heavy policing and high levels of crime and concentrated poverty. But Urban is engaging in efforts to measure community perspectives of police in the very neighborhoods that should be armed with that data.

After the panel, La Vigne and Dwivedi departed for a workshop in partnership with Chas Moore and Sukyi McMahon, leaders of the Austin Justice Coalition. The meeting brought together police officers and community members to discuss an upcoming survey of community perceptions of police. The workshop is part of Urban’s Community Voices initiative, an effort to ensure community members’ perspectives are reflected in survey methodology. Community Voices works with those who are most often underrepresented in studies to incorporate their viewpoints at every stage of the research process. 

Today’s conversation underscored another core value of collecting data: promoting transparency and accountability. Collecting data over time and making it publicly available is a key step to build trust and bridge the gap between law enforcement and the people they serve.

Photo by Rob Santos.

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As an organization, the Urban Institute does not take positions on issues. Experts are independent and empowered to share their evidence-based views and recommendations shaped by research.