On police legitimacy regardless of social science findings

On Wednesday I wrote about how statistical innumeracy has led to way too much being read into Roland Fryer’s recently released NBER study. Despite my appalling lack of talent ;^), I feel a little like it’s my job to write those kinds of posts in order to help people understand the mechanics of social science. I’m a somewhat unusual planner in that I have spent most of my career in economics before heading into planning and urban studies, and I was fortunate to wind up at USC Price where, though they drive me to drink on a daily basis, I am surrounded by excellent social scientists from both economics and political science. So I’m still learning every day.

That said, I don’t think the answer to #BLM advocacy is going to come from social science. Social science is good for many, many things, but with #BLM and the individual cases like Freddie Gray and Sandra Bland, there are two things going on which really have nothing to do with things that social science can detect.

The first are individual injustices: even if we did show, for example, that there were no disparities in police violence by race (which is not the case, but let’s say it was), any person unjustly harmed by representatives of the state–police–is a wrong that should be addressed if the system we have set up is functioning in a manner that people consider broadly just. Each individual case, from Freddie Grey to Sandra Bland, has to be correctly adjudicated even if there are no broad social trends that might be detectable with social science.

Fumbling on the adjudication of one wrong now and then does not mean the entire system is terrible; most people who aren’t Frederich Hayek understand that there is no perfect justice. A mistake here and there might be the best we can do.

But with Black Lives Matter and the issues they highlight, we aren’t talking about a few isolated incidents here and there.That’s the second issue. We are talking about multiple wrongs (or harms at the very least) that, over time, have accumulated so that a subgroup within the political community has lost faith in both policing and courts as public institutions. To some degree, we might be able to use social science to inform experiential knowledge of being subjected to policing. Experience matters, however, in how people know and learn, and it is itself a very important component to public policy formation, as well as institutional conduct.

The lack of legitimacy among police in black communities has been a forever problem in the US. What BLM seeks to do is get other parts of the political community to see and experience what they see: That trust is gone, the way they are treated is vastly different than the way others are treated, and that this policing is done under the tacit consent of all of us in the political community. When that trust is broken, then it’s gone, and it doesn’t come back because of social science. It comes back through governance: by demonstrating trustworthiness through changing behavior and practices.

#BLM advocates are not getting rich doing this. They are not looking for “special rights”, whatever that means. They are going to a great deal of trouble–I strongly suspect they would rather be playing Pokemon Go or watching television or painting or gardening or going for a hike than getting arrested and shoved around, don’t you? But they don’t have that privilege. They are protesting, like all those who protest in majoritarian or elite-dominated systems, because they have, through experience, listening, and observing, identified change they need and they do not have influence through lobbying or other back-door means.

Social science does not really have an answer to any of it, and it’s wrong to ask it to, just as it is wrong to try to use social science to undermine the calls for change.

About that Roland Fryer study and conceptual-level differences in statistical probabilities

(I swear I have corrected and corrected this post, darn it, and I keep finding typos and skipped words. Sorry.)

Roland Fryer, Jr. is a brilliant economist–I’ve always enjoyed reading his work on education, and thus when he produced a study on police shootings, the combination of Roland Fryer/Harvard/New York Times coverage has resulted in a ton of press for it. Here is the paper at NBER. Here is the original NYT piece, which I thought did a nice job writing up the study. It’s super irritating to me that what people have highlighted about the study is that he finds no statistically significant differences in shooting deaths between white and black suspects. For some reason, THAT is getting the headlines. But he finds disparities in _every_other_aspect of police treatment.

Taser use (ow) and rough treatment consistently show disparities. These conclusions are drawn from Stop and Frisk data from NYC and the Police Contact Survey (national data). The data on officer-involved shootings come from data solicited by the author from Boston, Camden, NYC, Philadelphia, Austin, Dallas, Houston, Los Angeles, six Florida counties, and Tacoma, Washington.

There is a very detailed discussion of their data collection process from police narratives, where they coded and back-coded nearly 200 variables from these cities. They then do a separate set of codings on Houston, and I’m not sure why, other than what Fryer reports: the Houston data has more detail than the others. I guess the differences in the data were enough to make Fryer think they might find something different in Houston than from the other 10 cities, so they analyzed them separately. I probably wouldn’t have done that; I probably would have kept the coding the same for all the cities and simply had empty cells for concepts missing in the other cities. It’s not clear, to me anyway, what he gets out of the second coding around Houston.

Like any good economist, he beats on the data pretty hard; he does robustness check after robustness check and finds really no evidence in the data that in individual interactions with police, there is a difference by race or ethnicity in the odds that deadly force will be used.

Now, that’s an interesting and important finding, but it’s limited, and people are not listening overmuch to Fryer as he points this out. Fryer’s data are used to model an interaction game among individuals. He’s not able to answer some of the questions that BLM has raised. There is a substantive difference between these two statistical propositions:

1) that, when a policeman has encountered an individual, they use deadly force. This is modeled as an odds ratio that examines the difference by officer demographics, some context variables and the race of the suspect. (if f is force and e is an encounter, we have the posterior probability (P(f|e))

2) that a police encounters an individual and then uses deadly force: the union of two probabilities (I’m too lazy to present the formula as it’s not straight up on my keyboard. Maths types who care about such things know what I am talking about anyway.)

It’s the second he doesn’t have, and that’s important. The first can tell us whether or not, in the statistical sense, individual policemen make racist choices when they have encounters with suspects in various situations. You can envision Fryer’s data as he does: as a series of conditional probabilities that begin to unfold at e. That’s a good thing to know. Whether an individual officer is a member of the Aryan Nation or not–that is, whether the individual police officer is explicitly racist and making explicitly racist choices in individual interactions–does not seem to be moving Fryer’s findings. (It still makes such an individual officer somebody I really, truly do not want having state-sanctioned capability to use deadly force, but the “bad apple making bad choices” idea does not seem to be driving the numbers).

Fryer does not really have P(e)–but his precinct data are suggestive–and that’s a problem. He discusses it over and over in the paper, and then again in his discussion with readers in this very nice NYT follow up. Disproportionality–the idea that relative to their population percentages, African Americans are disproportionately represented in police encounters/arrests/violence–could enter into the probability in proposition #1 at either point (e) or (f), and with out (e), we can’t use Fryer’s study except as a partial answer to BLM critiques of US policing. What we can conclude from Fryer’s study is that the disproportionality in the aggregate statistics are not likely due to P(f).* And that’s important–it’s way more than I’ve accomplished lately.

But anyway:

Fryer argues in the follow up that we should be able to understand whether P(e) is an issue somewhat in instances where police are called to a specific situation. I think that’s a good argument, but not a great one, because I don’t think we can treat race as exogenous in police calls or in police responses to calls. Who gets called on, what types of behaviors prompts calls, how quickly police are able to access the scene of the report (and thus, encounter a suspect), etc–those are all factors where race and place may factor into whether there is a suspect encountered. For instance, one reason his rates on deadly force use among whites may be relatively high compared to those of African Americans might be that white behaviors have to be extreme in some way before the police are called in the first place, and that extremeness, or interpretations of it–could prompt use of deadly force once police arrive. Police are likely to cluster geographically, and so is crime, and so are background populations–race and ethnicity are not geographically random.

* Well, back up. We can’t use one social science study, no matter how good (and this is a good study), as the answer. Social science evidence has to accrue across many, many high-quality studies before we should start deciding we know what’s going on. Here’s another good study that finds significant bias, but the data are aggregate.

Kim Davis, Ron Swanson, bureaucratic discretion, and civil disobedience

I think the cynical bits of the world predicting that Kim Davis will do just fine cashing in on her jail time are probably right, but I still think it’s unfortunate that she is in jail. One point of clarification is simply that she is in jail not because of her refusal to issue the licenses to same-sex couples, but because she refused to do so after a judge ordered her to. The actual charge is contempt of court. She isn’t in “Jail for Christians.” She’s in jail because she refused to do what a judge told her to. I couldn’t figure out whether she is appointed or elected.

As a result, she exists in a strange situation for those of us who study government-y things. . As either an appointed or elected clerk, she is not strictly a professional bureaucrat, but many of her functions concern the day-to-day legal transactions of local, state, and federal codes. The breadth of the duties of an average county clerk, particularly in a place like Rowan County, can be pretty large. This is one reason why the sitnexttoKimDavis on Twitter is very funny: it takes the pathos of Parks and Rec–the decidedly tedious aspects of public administration–and laughs at it under the national gaze of Kim Davis’ actions:

Sitnexto Kim Davis nexttokimdavis Twitter

The Parks and Rec reference has a point: there’s Ron Swanson, great champion of small government, and he’s….yeah.

That whipsaw between what one believes is right and what one does for a job or a role comes into play all the time within organizations and communities, and it always brings back Hirschmann’s Exit, Voice, and Loyalty or questions about individuals should do when vis-a-vis orders to do something they personally think is wrong.

Normally, what I’d prefer to see in cases like Ms. Davis’ is to simply find some reasonable accommodation around it. Think about this way: if the federal government had outsourced document issuance to a private employer, and Ms. Davis were employed by MegaDocuCorp, it would be reasonable, if she has a religious objection to issuing licenses to same-sex couples, that perhaps she just takes some other role at the counter. Or something that wouldn’t involve forcing the issue when her faith stands in conflict with her job role. MegaDocuCorp cannot take the position that it’s not going to issue those licenses, but as long as they have somebody at that counter doing the job, there is no reason why Ms. Davis would have to be the person to do it.

But we can’t really do that here. She has a very specific public role and is a public official, and she doesn’t have discretion on the legal code because she was superseded by a judge. Now, the issue is not necessarily settled forever; Plessy v. Ferguson stood for nearly 100 years and was finally overturned. I think there’s a snowball’s chance of that happening here, but it’s not outside the realm of possibility that in the future, the court will reverse recent decisions. But right now, the essence of her role is to check IDs and issue public documents, and those public documents now include licenses to same-sex couples. Even if she refused to hand somebody a license, as county clerk, the license goes out under her stamp. She can’t abide that, and thus, refuses to have the licenses issued at all.

Discretion is always contested terrain because bureaucrats;, judges, and everybody else who has it in a legal context are human beings interpreting their jobs. And while it would be nice if the Law were the Law and utterly objective, it’s not. It’s always, always subject to interpretation. Only in her case, she’s got a ruling.

As to the conservative gloat floating about how “liberals”/progressives love civil disobedience until a conservative does it, well, ok, but there’s shoes for other feet there, too: I remember lots of conservative hissy fits during Occupy for vague reasons that, when pressed, boiled down to ” I’m mad those people are getting attention and have iPhones.” The bottom line is that conservatives disagreed with Occupy, and so they didn’t respect the protests, and now liberals don’t respect Ms. Davis’ position and don’t respect her civil disobedience, either. Pointing out hypocrisy is one of the easiest sports in politics, both sides do it, and it’s never convincing because of both those reasons and the impossibility of having a perfectly coherent set of positions on every issue that arises.

Ultimately, I’m less bothered by recent court decisions than most people seem to be. I thought the Hobby Lobby decision was fine, and while I am sorry Ms. Davis is jail and can’t just be moved to another role, she’s refused to do her sworn duty. She wants to use the power granted her a public official to enforce her own religious beliefs, and I’m sorry, Christians of the world, but many, many of us who are happy to share a political community with you, draw the line at letting you rule by the standards of a faith we do not share. That’s not required of religious toleration by any measure.

#ReadUrbanandPlanningWomen2014 entry #12 Kristen Jeffers, the Black Urbanist blog

We’re in the middle of commencement, and my next research entry is a book, so I am a little behind and I thought I was use this week to direct you to the very nice blogging of Kirsten Jeffers of the Black Urbanist. Her writing is accessible, and her relationship with things urban is delightfully personal. Here is the link to the blog so you can get over there and set it up in your feed: The Black Urbanist. And here are some of my favorite recent posts get you started:

Things that should never be in driving distance

Can we let people gentrify themselves?

This breaktakingly sensible post about cars: What Grinds Our Gears About Cars

Whose Suburb Are We Talking About, Again?:

But enough of this kind of snark. Let me get to the real shade. Urban is not a race of people. Suburb is not a race of people. Rural is not a race of people. Say it as many times as you need to. Then, if you write articles like this that either by accident or lack of inclusiveness, imply that only one race of person moves to and from the suburbs, don’t be surprised if they get interpreted as attempts to be nice about labeling races, instead of true analyses of migration patterns.

Go read and share.

Places to go for some good Black History Month Reading

For Harriet has a lot of material written about black women and their contributions.

InMotion is a documentary of African Americans and their migration experience.

A timeline of African American inventors and inventions!

Become a member of the wonderful California African American Museum.

Not just for Black History Month, read Te-Nihesi Coates blog and Post-Bourgie and particularly this piece that agrees with me on the empty critiques of sayings about “do what you love” and work. Also, the Crunk Feminist Collective, which allows you to both read and financially support the page, which is an excellent idea if you want people to keep creating content unsubsidized by the University of Southern California the way I am.

Finally, The Root has wonderful online reporting; please see this very nice piece on Stokely Carmichael.

Quinn Norton’s excellent piece on Occupy in Wired

via Crooked Timber and bunch of other places, Quinn Norton’s amazing piece on the good and the bad of Occupy.

I am still trying to make sense of Occupy. I do know that for me, it did expose a shrill hypocrisy among many in the US who give lip service to freedom but who chortled with glee while riot cops bashed young people’s heads because members of occupy dared disrupt the precious social order by using their freedom of assembly. Does freedom mean merely the freedom to earn and buy? But not, I guess, the freedom to band together if I don’t agree with you, or if you represent a class of urban young people I don’t like, or whatever. In that case, shut up, be invisible, and Obey. That struck me as sad throughout, and it still strikes me as sad and as a fundamental inability to understand that liberty entails the obligation to make space for people and ideas you do not like.

Anand Vaida’s discussion on neoliberalism in All the Beautiful Forevers

Over at n+1, Anand Vaida has a piece worth reading on criticism of Katherine Boo’s book Behind the Beautiful Forevers. Here’s the set up:

The book was met with a storm of praise in both India and the United States — for the extent and depth of Boo’s research, for her empathy for her subjects, and for avoiding the trap that several recent “big India books” fell into when they took the entire country as their subject and ended up capturing nothing. An almost solitary discordant note came from Mitu Sengupta, a political science professor in Canada. In a review published on the progressive Indian blog Kafila (and later republished on the Dissent website), Sengupta charged the book with having a “subtle alignment with the neoliberal narrative”—that is, a muted but consistent anti–welfare state and pro-market agenda. The chief evidence of Boo’s neoliberalism, according to Sengupta, is the curious fact that none of Boo’s characters participate in any kind of collective activity; when someone does attempt to assert control over her life, it is always in isolation.

Vaida discussion is both helpful and reasoned, and I don’t have much to add to it. It’s long, but it’s well worth reading. I do have some confusion about the criticism and its ultimate disposition for those who write about bad conditions. I do have to admit that I have not read Boo’s book, as I am concerned about it being another version of poverty porn.

Because I tend to write about institutions and social justice, I get a lot of criticism from reviewers that I do the same thing that Boo does: that is, I don’t provide descriptions on what people experiencing injustice to fight it. As a result, the writing robs victims of the agency they demonstrate and maintains focus on the institution.

I can understand that. However, in much of my wrting, I am trying to get how institutions should fix their damn selves. While I understand the impulse to focus on how collective action affect change in institutions,  I have several concerns about making that the point of what I write about when I write about injustice and ethics.

1) Describing social movements or what people do when they respond to injustice may or may not be part of the story about why an institution should fix its damn self.

2) If there is a community response, and there often is, I don’t feel like that it’s my story to tell. Surely there are people, analogous to Derrick Bell and Julian Bond, who can and will write and speak for the movement themselves. While I am happy to be resource and support to that writing, it’s not my story and I don’t feel comfortable appropriating it for my own ends–e.g., publication and career advancement.

3) I do want to create the expectation that institutions and the planners within them should fix (did I say this?)  their damn selves without reinforcing the notion that institutional change can not happen unless oppressed people take on the burden of fixing.

4) Plenty of “Oh, lookit what those little community organizations are doing to fight the man!” narratives produced by academics strike me as patronizing, condescending, and reinforcing of the notion that democratic and advocacy coalitions are ‘handling’ the problem and thus, those of us who hold power and privilege don’t need to bother.

Other writers, like Vandana Shiva and James Scott, do an amazing job of writing about people’s movements. I rather feel like that material is covered: it’s obvious that when you treat people poorly, they find way to call you out, and that people power is actually a source of power. I don’t feel the need to echo that in my contributions, as that’s there. It’s evident.

Directions and comments on how I am wrong would be most helpful.

Where do rights come from?

We’ve spent the last few weeks in justice class working on rights and what they are, where they come from. In particular, we posed the difficult question for secular governments of: if you don’t believe in souls or the divine aspects of man, how do you set up the theoretical precedents for humans as rights-holders? It’s a sticky problem when you start poking at the question of rights without gods: people of faith have it a bit easier by referring to a divinity who holds mankind in special regard, and from that follows that mankind has certain entitlements. Certainly secular rights theorists have their arguments, such as eudaimonism, among others. The nice thing about the secular route is that you have a opening for people like Peter Singer to come along and challenge your assumptions about pleasure- and pain-feeling for the basis for rights, largely as a means of extending those rights to animals and other species that obviously feel pain, fear death, etc.

I got rather stuck in the middle of Nicholas Wolterstorff’s book, Justice: Right and Wrongs, and within his chapter on eudaimonism, where he argues that pleasure and pain principles can not, ultimately serve as a basis for rights-holding. I’m getting lost in his reasoning. Here’s Wolterstorff discussing Rawls (my approach–public reason) versus secular morality, and the paradox of the reasoning behind rights.

It strikes me that his argument that you can’t reason with some people also pokes holes in his own approach to rights; if you can’t reason with boneheads, and you can’t reconcile public moralities, you also have trouble making foundational religious claims among people like me who do not believe.

#ACSP2012 Reflections 2: Mentoring across difference POCIG/FWIG panel, thinking about LGBTQ concerns

Georgia Tech’s Catherine Ross and Tufts’ Julian Agyeman were kind enough to join me for a POCIG/FWIG joint session on “Mentoring Across Difference.” We had a terrific discussion, and there were three questions that really gave me some food for thought.

1: How do we help ACSP promote accountability within departments for making sure that university departments understand the differences that faculty and color face during promotion and tenure?

Julian had a terrific answer to this question, and it concerns the idea that we should have cultural literacy required in our core master’s classes. Now, this strikes me as a great idea, with some potential dangers. The great idea part: if we get master’s students to truly begin to see how entitlement and privilege work differently for different groups, they will understand these differences going forward into PhD programs, and onto faculty.Read More »

Richard Green’s testimony on how to work through foreclosures

My wonderful colleague, Richard Green, testified in front of the Senate Banking Committee. He’s convinced me, and I’ve been a bit dubious about bailing out homeowners (still: why didn’t we make the banks refinance when we were handing the banks money with TARP? I don’t get it). Here’s my favorite part of the testimony

There are those who argue that it was the attempt to advance
mortgage credit to minorities that led to our current condition—
I do not accept that argument. The loans that have performed
most poorly were originated by institutions that were not
covered by the Community Reinvestment Act or the Affordable
Housing Goals. Moreover, as Mr. Wallison himself once noted,
Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac did not do a good job of advancing
credit to minorities or low-income neighborhoods. While this is
to their discredit, it undermines the argument that their
troubles arose because they made too many loans to underserved