Meet The Man Helping Pittsburgh Police Confront Their Racial Biases

Sep 21, 2017

Fear, fatigue, mood and experience all affect how people interact with others. That's especially true when those actions have life or death consequences.

On this episode of 90.5 WESA's Criminal Injustice podcast, host and University of Pittsburgh law professor David Harris spoke to social psychologist Phillip Atiba Goff, who is working with Pittsburgh police to proactively confront their racial biases.

Goff is the Franklin A. Thomas Professor of Policing Equity at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and the president and co-founder of the Center for Policing Equity.

Their conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

PHILLIP ATIBA GOFF: Imagine that you're getting together with your old college buddies or your old high school buddies. You know how you act a little bit differently there? Or when you go home to your parents bed, and you act like you're a kid again? Well there's situations that make us act sometimes inconsistently with our values, and it's the same thing with issues of race and racism.

DAVID HARRIS: Your organization, the National Initiative for Community Trust and Justice, is training police in six pilot cities: Pittsburgh; Minneapolis, Minn.; Birmingham, Ala.; Fort Worth, Tx.; Gary, Ind.; and Stockton, Calif. They're training in implicit bias, procedural justice and racial reconciliation. How does social psychology inform that training?

GOFF: We're showing them how to tactically perceive their environment. So our goal is to give them tools to protect themselves against the basic human psychology to which everybody is vulnerable. And on the outside of that, our hope is that the behaviors that they engage in become more in line with their values.

HARRIS: So it should make police safer and protect the public from discrimination?

GOFF: That's the goal, and that's what the data say so far.

HARRIS: OK, let's talk about those results so far. How do they look for these six cities?

GOFF: So I don't want to get into specifics in terms of any particular city, but in the places where we've been doing evaluations of the trainings, what we find is that (we need to) forget about what people's attitudes are. They're able to identify the places where they're more likely to engage in procedurally unjust or implicitly biased behavior. They've got proactive strategies for creating solutions to that – solves for it – and they're able to check each other. So (officers) help each other avoid those identity traps, and they help each other stay procedurally just.

HARRIS: And the public attitudes, how are those shaping up as they as the public looks at police?

GOFF: Particularly in the most vulnerable communities, one of the things that's been most inspiring to me – a majority of folks are wanting to work with police to reduce crime. They want to work collaboratively with police to reduce crime. It was shocking to some of the rank-and-file folks we spoke to, and it's shocking to the stereotypes we have about crime-ridden communities. They want to work collaboratively, and if you can make that happen, you can get the crime down and you can restore those community relations.

HARRIS: In episode 60 of Criminal Injustice, we talked about just how many civilians are shot and sometimes killed by the police, and about how little concrete data is actually out there. You've looked at this, too, I know. The large numbers of shootings that we hear about, are they the result of racial bias or failed tactics, both or something else?

GOFF: So we talk about the large number, because any is too many. And they have been so disproportionately black and male that it seems to be worthy of our moral outrage, and I think it is. But I can't say that the shootings are the result of any one set of things. Frequently, if it's a bad shooting, a shooting that didn't need to happen, there were tactical mistakes early on and throughout the process. But it's more complicated than that as an end result. I think the question that we should be asking is, "When force is used across the board, how do we make sure that it's done fairly and equitably and only when it's necessary?" And what I can say from looking at use of force – not just deadly shootings, but any type of force – is that we have a long way to go to get better, and I'm glad that there are police departments that are eager to take that road and take that journey with us.

HARRIS: So as you look ahead in 20 years at where policing might be you think or still be fighting the same battles.

GOFF: You said 20 years? Yeah, we're going to be fighting the same battles. These battles are going to outlive you or I, our children and probably our grandchildren. And this is a point I didn't get to make earlier, so thank you for letting me: This is a problem, in terms of how we talk about it now, that is as big as what powerful people do the less powerful people. It is one of the fundamental problems of the human condition. So we're going to be fighting this fight until we solve that. Until we fix issues of racism in this country, we're going to be talking about race and policing, because policing is only a microcosm and frequently a symptom of a much larger problem.

You can hear David Harris’ full conversation with Phillip Atiba Goff on this week’s episode of WESA’s Criminal Injustice podcast. Subscribe on iTunes or through your favorite podcast app.