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.

On writing about evil

One of my early, arm’s-length mentors at Virginia Tech, the exceedingly kind Ed Weisband, took me out to lunch and got on my case, a little bit and deservedly, about being too timid in my early writing about justice. I remember him saying, with genuine anguish in his voice, “I don’t like writing about evil, Lisa. It breaks my heart writing about evil. But I have to.” At the time, Ed was writing about genocide, and while it took me a really long time to buck up the courage to write explicitly about justice, I have finally started doing so.

Ed is right; it’s hard to write about evil. I blew things up with my book about a month ago. I did so for several reasons; one was simply that this spring has been one hit to my scholarly confidence after another. After one particular incident sent me into a pretty bad tailspin, I got to questioning the basic premise of the project: Whom was I actually writing this book for? For me? That seems like a narcissistic answer. To get promoted? Like most people, I’d love to attain status and prestige, but not enough to do work I don’t believe in. I did that when I was a consultant, and it broke me a little each time.

The other contributing factor was the extreme difficulty of the data collection, management, and analysis of some of the empirical parts of the book. There are some ambitious analyses in the book, and they have required copious amounts of programming in Python, a language I do not know well.

Yes, I could have produced a book in a year if I’d been less ambitious. If there isn’t any risk of failure, it’s not any fun, not really.

And then there is one chapter that I have been writing about Trayvon Martin and Black Lives Matter. This chapter has subjected me to what Ed Weisband told me years ago about the emotional pain of writing about evil. It’s breaking my heart. When I walked away from the book, my biggest feeling of relief–one I didn’t disclose to anybody asking me questions about why I’d leave the book after I had invested so heavily in it–was the possibility that I wasn’t going to have to read one more racist comment about Martin or his parents and that I wouldn’t have to read and sort through stories such as this newest, about Zimmerman selling the gun he killed Martin with for $100,000+.

I still hate touching that analysis every time I touch it. I hate that my neighbors have to worry about their children the way black parents have to worry about their children. I hate that my black students might get hurt or killed because of the hate I am reading in the tea leaves. This is looking straight into American evil. And it hurts me every time I do.

It felt good thinking I wouldn’t have to do it anymore.

But not doing it didn’t feel right either. So I am back, working away on that chapter, and hurting every time. But if it hurts me to look at it, living it is a million times worse. There comes a point where your realize that your feelings don’t matter, and that if you have information that might wake people up, you have to use it.

Aristotle on whether Black voters should vote for Bernie or Hill

Charles Blow breaks it down in his column Stop Bernie-Splaining to Black Voters. Just read it.

But here:

Tucked among all this Bernie-splaining by some supporters, it appears to me, is a not-so-subtle, not-so-innocuous savior syndrome and paternalistic patronage that I find so grossly offensive that it boggles the mind that such language should emanate from the mouths — or keyboards — of supposed progressives.

I wish I could write like that. Oh, and just shut your gobbyhole or keep your fingers quiet unless you are pointing out resources to read, ideas, data, or otherwise being useful. Deliberating a candidate’s position is quite different than telling somebody what their interests are or should be, particularly when a group of people, say, Black folks, have been telling us what their interests are for a long damn time and decidedly few mainstream political candidates have done much to listen or act on those interests. Some Black people continue to tell us about their interests with Black Lives Matter: how’s about we clean up the justice shitshow that are the innumerable police departments and practices that kill off Black people and let their killers go free?

That is an interest. And it’s being stated clear enough.

This kind of talking down happens frequently to voters; rural voters are dumb, and they don’t vote their interests, yada yada. It’s just exceptionally bad when Bernie supporters do it to Black voters because progressives should know better.

Lots of people seem to vote their values rather than their interests, or their pocketbook. And people’s interests and values change over time.

Even if you are voting your interests, Blow is also correct that many other judgements also influence how individuals evaluate leadership. It’s not just who has your interests in his or her heart: it’s also who might be able and willing to deliver. Good leadership is difficult, and thus evaluating good leadership is also difficult. And the future is a place and time we don’t know as much about as we’d like to.

There is so much good political theory on interests and representation that I don’t even know where to begin to list. One nice paper from Theodore Banditt (that I unfortunately can’t find a free pdf of) systematically lays out the various ways that political philosophers have described interest, and that one gets us a good reading list.

On to Aristotle and interests: In the Politics he notes that people are not good judges of interests when their own interests are in question, and it’s a good insight. I’m using the Rackham translation:

For instance, it is thought that justice is equality, and so it is, though not for everybody but only for those who are equals; and it is thought that inequality is just, for so indeed it is, though not for everybody, but for those who are unequal; but these partisans strip away the qualification of the persons concerned, and judge badly. And the cause of this is that they are themselves concerned in the decision, and perhaps most men are bad judges when their own interests are in question.

That last bit gets me–καὶ κρίνουσι κακῶς–“and judge badly.” Aristotle is a bit of a grind to read in Greek, at least for me, but this little addition makes me smile even in the original. You could also translate κακῶς as “wrongly”, but “badly” adds more punch to the English translation. κακῶς is a problem for me here, as it appears often in Greek, in both ancient text and New Testament, and like the English word “Bad”, it can mean quite a bit, ranging from evil to incompetence. Those, and just about everything in the range between them, are “bad” in English or get described as κακῶς in Greek. The context here suggests that κακῶς means incompetently.

He goes on to discuss what he has said in the EN before:

because men are bad judges where they themselves are concerned, but also, inasmuch as both parties put forward a plea that is just up to a certain point, they think that what they say is absolutely just.

People go wrong in their judgements of what just and what is equal because their interests blind them to other factors that matter in the adjudication of who is “equal” and what is “just.”

Bernie supporters want the Black vote, and thus the Black vote should vote with Bernie supporters.

#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.

No, it’s NOT true that people did “nothing” about Donald Sterling’s prior racism

Well, there was the outrage about Donald Sterling’s comments, all of which is well-deserved. Some folks, including my eternal beloved Kareem Abdul Jabbar, attempted to turn the outrage into a learning moment by noting that there’s a lot of finger wagging at Sterling over his racist speech but “gave him a buy” or “never cared about” his prior racist actions, and how that emphasis on speech rather than actions makes us rather complicit and complacent when it comes to social injustice from racist actions, and a bit over-preachy when it comes to racist words.

Now, I am all for confronting people on structural racism and racist actions, I need it as much as anybody, but there is a lot of casual, assumed, default, anti-government stuff going on the “y’all did nothing to discipline Sterling when he did this and this” talk, and it needs to be confronted in the interests of fairness.

Sterling’s long, horrid-guy behavior appears here in the New York Times.

There’s a story there of a guy who does lousy mean stuff.

There is also a story there of a Justice Department who prosecuted the guy and made him cough up nearly $3 million in fines for his prior discriminatory behavior towards people of color because we–we–have rules about that sort of thing.

That is NOT nothing:

In 2009, Sterling paid a $2.725 million settlement in a lawsuit brought by the Justice Department accusing him of systematically driving African-Americans, Latinos and families with children out of apartment buildings he owned.

It was an important LA story, so I knew it. And I’m a professor in a public policy school. But there are a lot of stories out there for people to be outraged over. The fact that people in, say, Dallas or Des Moines, weren’t up in arms over the housing discrimination is that they didn’t see that item in the paper, or it didn’t get covered in their news outlets. A shame, that. But understandable.

However, and this is a BIG however, people in Dallas and Des Moines and everywhere in the US live in a country where his housing discrimination practices are illegal. And those laws were enforced. Illegal. Enforced. At the federal level. People DID do something. Residents fought. Lawyers on behalf of the clients fought. And they won. And he couldn’t just send his private rich-guy army/mafia out to gun down those lawyers or those residents. For the residents, standing up to landlords like Sterling and his corporate henchpeople is both frightening and exhausting, and it takes courage to do it. And yet they did it.

Democratic institution passed civil rights laws and expanded them to include housing discimination; citizens–impoverished, marginalized citizens, but citizens nonetheless, appealed to those laws; and bureaucratic institutions enforced those laws.

That is most definitely not nothing. The fact that Joe Smith in Random Locale didn’t know the particulars about Donald Sterling’s attitudes and past conduct? Much less important than what the civil society Joe Smith belongs to can do when it crafts just laws and institutions and then uses them for what they are for.

I’m just saying. It may not be enough; I think it’s not. But it’s not *nothing*, and treating it as such is wrong. We should be scandalized by his words and his behavior towards tenants. But we did something about the latter.

I forgive you, Kareem, not for not acknowledging that fair housing rules do what they are supposed to (sometimes, at least, partially), and I still want to be your BFF. Call me.

Cliven Bundy, sociologist

Clive Bundy, the rootingest-tootingest-shootingest big hero of the week because he can’t make a go of his ranch without grazing handouts from all the rest of us had some real insightful things to say about the abuse of public subsidy in the NYT:

so Mr. Bundy used the time to officiate at what was in effect a town meeting with supporters, discussing, in a long, loping discourse, the prevalence of abortion, the abuses of welfare and his views on race.

“I want to tell you one more thing I know about the Negro,” he said. Mr. Bundy recalled driving past a public-housing project in North Las Vegas, “and in front of that government house the door was usually open and the older people and the kids — and there is always at least a half a dozen people sitting on the porch — they didn’t have nothing to do. They didn’t have nothing for their kids to do. They didn’t have nothing for their young girls to do.

“And because they were basically on government subsidy, so now what do they do?” he asked. “They abort their young children, they put their young men in jail, because they never learned how to pick cotton. And I’ve often wondered, are they better off as slaves, picking cotton and having a family life and doing things, or are they better off under government subsidy? They didn’t get no more freedom. They got less freedom.”

One really needn’t make things THIS easy for the liberal lame stream media.

#ReadUrbanandPlanningWomen2014 entry #7: Charisma Acey

Charisma Acey is assistant professor of City & Regional Planning at UC Berkeley. She’s one of the folks who came to UCLA as I was leaving, so I’ve always known her to chat with (as she’s a lovely person), but I’ve not made time to read her work. This is one of those weeks where I am feeling exceptionally pleased with myself for coming up with this exercise because it got me to read some of Charisma’s work. I don’t know much about her research area, I learned a lot, and she’s a marvelous prose stylist. Newly minted fangirl here.

I selected a history paper:

Acey, C. 2012. Forbidden waters: colonial intervention and the evolution of water supply in Benin City, Nigeria. Water History

This paper follows up on earlier work Dr. Acey has done on Accra, and it examines the same themes tracing how colonial decisions about the land tenure, urban residential segregation, and water infrastructure investment created a path-dependent, lingering inequality in access to water within Benin. There is a strong dose of environmental history here along with urban history.

The manuscript begins with the pre-colonial history of the Benin City dynasty that transformed the city via engineering to bring the spread of malaria. The result was a thriving city and polity that remained independent until the 1800s, when the British began to pressure the Benin leadership for greater access to trade. Whenever I read histories and I encounter the word “trade” I’m always grumpy because of a pet peeve; the type of trade is not incidental to the subsequent history. If we don’t know what the trade is in, we don’t the motives or the geography of the incentives that people are responding to. I had to do some background research to figure out what the trade was in, and from what I can tell, Benin City was a lively slave trading kingdom as well as a supplier of tropical commodities like palm oil and pepper. But the apparent wealth of the Benin City kings appears have to flourished prior to European contact as they were an established empire who conquered neighboring tribes, so an existing slave economy makes sense given the the empire’s reliance on farming and agriculture to support the city (there are slave empires all over the ancient and medieval world.) This isn’t the main point of the manuscript, but it does suggest to me that, given agricultural dependency, the story about water has some interesting facets prior to the story that Dr. Acey develops here.

The British took over Benin City in 1897 after a series of tentative treaties broke down into violence, and British colonial water regulation began in 1910 with taking water from the Ogba River–a river that locals had usually allowed only grey water uses and not human consumption. Instead, local residents use the water from the Ikpoba River, with royal and elite families drawing from the more exclusive freshwater offshoots of the Ikpoba. The Ogba was selected because it was a cheaper infrastructure project for th British. Soon conflicts ensued over water levies and taxes. Eventually, the city went back to relying on the Ikpoba River in 1987, but it still has proven difficult to get an adequate supply of water for the entire city, with attempts at private supply and an emerging hybrid governance structure that still carries the imprint of colonization: disproportionate investment in European settlements with investment lagging in indigenous settlements.