When public anger can prompt the collection of better data

I’ve seen this argument several places, including this AP story: collecting national data about fatalities due to police would be helpful.

To many Americans, it feels like a national tidal wave. And yet, no firm statistics can say whether this spate of officer-involved deaths is a growing trend or simply a series of coincidences generating a deafening buzz in news reports and social media.

“We have a huge scandal in that we don’t have an accurate count of the number of people who die in police custody,” says Samuel Walker, emeritus professor of criminal justice at the University of Nebraska at Omaha and a leading scholar on policing and civil liberties. “That’s outrageous.”…

The FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports, for instance, track justifiable police homicides – there were 1,688 between 2010 and 2013 – but the statistics rely on voluntary reporting by local law enforcement agencies and are incomplete. Circumstances of the deaths, and other information such as age and race, also aren’t required.

The Wall Street Journal, detailing its own examination of officer-involved deaths at 105 of the nation’s 110 largest police departments, reported last week that federal data failed to include or mislabeled hundreds of fatal police encounters…

Chettiar is hopeful that recent events will create the “political and public will” to begin gathering and analyzing the facts.

A few quick thoughts:

1. Just because this data hasn’t been collected doesn’t necessarily mean this was intentional. Government agencies collect lots of data but it takes some deliberate action and foresight regarding what should and shouldn’t be reported. Given that there are a least a few hundred such deaths each year, you would think someone would have flagged such information as interesting but apparently not. Now would be a good time to start reporting and collecting such data.

2. Statistics would be helpful in providing a broader perspective on the issue but, as the article notes, statistics have certain kinds of persuasive power as do individual events or broad narratives not necessarily backed by statistics. In our individualistic culture, specific stories can often go a long ways. At the same time, social problems are often defined by their scope which involves statistical measures of how many people are affected.

When American protestors take to the highway

Americans like their highways free of obstructions. So, what happened recently when a group of protestors blocked one of Atlanta’s main highways at rush hour?

That was what made the images of last week’s protest on the road known as the Atlanta Downtown Connector so jarring. A few dozen individuals, including members of the group Southerners on New Ground, walked out onto that roadway and laid down a banner reading “#BlackLivesMatter.” This was one of several actions around the country protesting police violence and mass incarceration, and expressing solidarity with those who have been demonstrating in Ferguson, Missouri, over the killing of black teenager Michael Brown by white policeman Darren Wilson…

The protesters blocked traffic on I-75/85, one of Atlanta’s major commuter routes, for only a short time, but they managed to get the attention of the drivers who rely on that route before the police cleared them from the roadway without making any arrests…

Reaction to the protest was decidedly mixed among Atlantans, with some people going on Twitter to criticize the action with comments such as, “I support the protests in #Ferguson, but why are they shutting down a highway in Atlanta so that BLACK folks can’t get home from work?” and “Look, I get standing in solidarity w/ #Ferguson, but #Atlanta traffic is already bad. So yeah, if you’re stuck in that, I’m POd w/ you.”

Blocking city streets has been an urban protest tactic since there were urban protests…

Blocking major roads in the United States, however, is much more rare. Most notably, the Selma to Montgomery marches that were pivotal in the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s used U.S. Route 80, a move that was upheld in a ruling by Federal District Court Judge Frank M. Johnson, Jr. His opinion was deeply controversial at the time: “The law is clear that the right to petition one’s government for the redress of grievances may be exercised in large groups,” said the judge, “and these rights may be exercised by marching, even along public highways.”

While this summary doesn’t give many details, I would be really interested to hear how the police handled this. Any pedestrian activity, let alone an intentional protest, on a major highway would often be viewed as a concern. At the same time, this is a good way to get the attention of a lot of people for the unusual location of the protest.

The article ends on a note that such protests help make highways less removed from normal life. This is due to a long American history of generally wanting their roads to be for automobile travel. This means bicycling, walking on nearby sidewalks, slow vehicles, and any other impediments (including natural ones) are often scorned. Such thoughts and policies helped lawmakers and politicians ram highways through major cities and urban neighborhoods in the mid-1900s. In contrast, our cities don’t have as many public pedestrian spaces like many European or other global cities which are full of plazas, parks, and wide sidewalks.

 

Chicago P.D. promotes untruths about urban police work

Gregg Easterbrook points out that the TV show Chicago P.D. takes numerous liberties in depicting urban police and crime:

NBC promotes Chicago P.D. by implying it shows the gritty, realistic truth of urban police work, much as the network promoted Hill Street Blues a generation ago. But Chicago P.D. isn’t vaguely realistic. The 15-episode first season depicted half-dozen machine-gun battles on Chicago streets. Gunfire is distressingly common in Chicago, but nothing like what the show presents. Mass murders, explosions and jailbreaks are presented as everyday events in the Windy City. A dozen cops have been gunned down in the series so far; that’s more than the total killed on-duty by gunfire in actual during the current decade. (Look on the left for Chicago; the right is the national figure.) Officers on Chicago P.D. obtain in minutes the sort of information that takes real law enforcement months to compile. A detective barks, “Get me a list of all gang-affiliated males in this neighborhood.” A moment later, she’s holding the info.

The antihero protagonist is said to have been in prison for corruption but released “by order of the police chief.” This really is not how the justice system works. Then a cop-killer also is released “by order of the police chief,” which sets up a plot arc in which the good guys seek vengeance. In the real Chicago — or any big city — a convicted cop-killer would never see sunlight again.

Okay, it’s television. But what’s disturbing about Chicago P.D. is audiences are manipulated to think torture is a regrettable necessity for protecting the public. Three times in the first season, the antihero tortures suspects — a severe beating and threats to cut off an ear and shove a hand down a running garbage disposal. Each time, torture immediately results in information that saves innocent lives. Each time, viewers know, from prior scenes, the antihero caught the right man. That manipulates the viewer into thinking, “He deserves whatever he gets.”…

NBC executives don’t want to live in a country where police have the green light to torture suspects. So why do they extol on primetime the notion that torture by the police saves lives? Don’t say to make the show realistic. Nothing about “Chicago P.D.” is realistic — except the scenery.

One excuse is that this is just TV. At the same time, shows like this perpetuate myths about urban crime and police. While crime is down in cities in recent decades, shows like this suggest worse things are happening: it’s not just gun violence but open use of machine guns, not just some crooked cops but consistently crooked cops in a crooked system, and prisoners are routinely tortured. There may be a little truth in all of these things but consistently showing them leads to incorrect perceptions which then affect people’s actions (voting, whether they visit the city, who they blame for social problems, etc.).

Chicago crime stats: beware the “official” data in recent years

Chicago has a fascinating look at some interesting choices made about how to classify homicides in Chicago – with the goal of trying to reduce the murder count.

For the case of Tiara Groves is not an isolated one. Chicago conducted a 12-month examination of the Chicago Police Department’s crime statistics going back several years, poring through public and internal police records and interviewing crime victims, criminologists, and police sources of various ranks. We identified 10 people, including Groves, who were beaten, burned, suffocated, or shot to death in 2013 and whose cases were reclassified as death investigations, downgraded to more minor crimes, or even closed as noncriminal incidents—all for illogical or, at best, unclear reasons…

Many officers of different ranks and from different parts of the city recounted instances in which they were asked or pressured by their superiors to reclassify their incident reports or in which their reports were changed by some invisible hand. One detective refers to the “magic ink”: the power to make a case disappear. Says another: “The rank and file don’t agree with what’s going on. The powers that be are making the changes.”

Granted, a few dozen crimes constitute a tiny percentage of the more than 300,000 reported in Chicago last year. But sources describe a practice that has become widespread at the same time that top police brass have become fixated on demonstrating improvement in Chicago’s woeful crime statistics.

And has there ever been improvement. Aside from homicides, which soared in 2012, the drop in crime since Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy arrived in May 2011 is unprecedented—and, some of his detractors say, unbelievable. Crime hasn’t just fallen, it has freefallen: across the city and across all major categories.

Two quick thoughts:

1. “Official” statistics are often taken for granted and it is assumed that they measure what they say they measure. This is not necessarily the case. All statistics have to be operationalized, taken from a more conceptual form into something that can be measured. Murder seems fairly clear-cut but as the article notes, there is room for different people to classify things differently.

2. Fiddling with the statistics is not right but, at the same time, we should consider the circumstances within which this takes place. Why exactly does the murder count – the number itself – matter so much? Are we more concerned about the numbers or the people and communities involved? How happy should we be that the number of murders was once over 500 and now is closer to 400? Numerous parties mentioned in this article want to see progress: aldermen, the mayor, the police chief, the media, the general public. Is progress simply reducing the crime rate or rebuilding neighborhoods? In other words, we might consider whether the absence of major crimes is the best end goal here.

Gangs using social media in Chicago

Wired looks at how Chicago gangs are using social media:

We naturally associate criminal activity with secrecy, with conspiracies hatched in alleyways or back rooms. Today, though, foolish as it may be in practice, street gangs have adopted a level of transparency that might impress even the most fervent Silicon Valley futurist. Every day on Facebook and Twitter, on Instagram and YouTube, you can find unabashed teens flashing hand signs, brandishing guns, splaying out drugs and wads of cash. If we live in an era of openness, no segment of the population is more surprisingly open than 21st-century gang members, as they simultaneously document and roil the streets of America’s toughest neighborhoods.

There’s a term sometimes used for a gangbanger who stirs up trouble online: Facebook driller. He rolls out of bed in the morning, rubs his eyes, picks up his phone. Then he gets on Facebook and starts insulting some person he barely knows, someone in a rival crew. It’s so much easier to do online than face-to-face. Soon someone else takes a screenshot of the post and starts passing it around. It’s one thing to get cursed out in front of four or five guys, but online the whole neighborhood can see it—the whole city, even. So the target has to retaliate just to save face. And at that point, the quarrel might be with not just the Facebook driller a few blocks away but also haters 10 miles north or west who responded to the post. What started as a provocation online winds up with someone getting drilled in real life.

And the police are watching:

Gang enforcement officers in Chicago started looking closely at social media sites about three years ago, after learning that high school students were filming fights in the hallways and alcoves of their schools and posting the videos online. Boudreau tells me that they began to hear about fight videos going on YouTube during the day, and then they would often see a related shooting later in the afternoon. In the department’s deployment operations center, the other unit in the force that regularly monitors social media activity, officers first took notice when they read in the newspaper about a West Side gang member who was using the Internet to find out about enemies being released from prison. But “virtual policing” became a priority only after kids aligned with local cliques started calling each other out in rap videos…

Police and other experts say the ad hoc, emotional nature of street violence today might actually present an opportunity. Repairing big rifts between warring criminal enterprises is really hard; defusing minor beefs and giving kids skills to regulate their socio-emotional behavior is highly labor-intensive but effective. And the public nature of social media gives police and advocacy groups some warning about trouble before it starts. For a long time, criminal-justice experts have talked about predictive policing—the idea that you can use big data to sniff out crimes before they happen, conjuring up an ethically troublesome future like the one depicted in Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report. But in Chicago and other big cities, police are finding it’s much easier than that. Give people social media and they’ll tell you what they’re about to do.

And this activity on social media helps fuel a social network approach to examining gangs.

Mapping England’s emotional mood in real-time

A group of researchers have developed a real-time map of England’s emotions based on Twitter:

The team, from Loughborough University, say it can scan up to 2,000 tweets a second and rate them for expressions of one of eight human emotions…

The team, from the university’s new Centre for Information Management, say the system can extract a direct expression of anger, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness, surprise, shame and confusion from each tweet.

The academics said that using the Emotive software to geographically evaluate any mass mood could help police to track potential criminal behaviour or threats to public safety.

It may be able to guide national policy on the best way to react to major incidents, they added.

There have been several projects like this in recent years. The algorithms to sort out all of the language must be intricate. But, I’m skeptical about two things. One is a sampling issue. Just how many people in England are using Twitter? In the United States, the figures about regular Twitter users are still quite low. You can map the moods of Twitter users but this doesn’t necessarily represent the larger population. The Twitter population probably trends younger. At the same time, responding to vocal responses on the web or on Twitter might be effective for public relations. A second issue is how exactly tracking moods could be used to help police. So police will be sent to places that show high concentrations of disgust or anger and pay less attention to places experiencing happiness? Or, such a system might alert police to trouble spots? I suspect it is more complicated than this yet I imagine such talk could make Twitter users nervous about how exactly their moods will be analyzed.

Rioting in the Swedish suburbs

Youths are rioting in the Swedish suburbs after a recent violent incident involving police:

Hundreds of youths burnt down a restaurant, set fire to more than 30 cars and attacked police during a fourth night of rioting in the suburbs of Stockholm, shocking a country that dodged the worst of the financial crisis but failed to solve youth unemployment and resentment among asylum seekers.

Violence spread across the Swedish capital on Wednesday, as large numbers of young people rampaged through the suburbs, throwing stones, breaking windows and destroying cars. Police in the southern city of Malmo said two cars had been set ablaze…

The disturbances appear to have been sparked by the police killing a 69-year-old man wielding a machete in the suburb of Husby earlier this month, which prompted accusations of police brutality. The riots then spread to other poor Stockholm suburbs.

“We see a society that is becoming increasingly divided and where the gaps, both socially and economically, are becoming larger,” said Rami Al-khamisi, co-founder of Megafonen, a group that works for social change in the suburbs. “And the people out here are being hit the hardest … we have institutional racism.”

This sounds very similar to the context of the London riots a few years ago: the police are involved in a death and local residents respond in rioting while charging that this is part of a long line of negative actions taken by the police and government. However, we wouldn’t want to “commit sociology” by trying to explain such actions, would we?

This is a reminder of the state of some European suburbs where immigrants and lower-class residents live in run-down neighborhoods isolated from the native European society and opportunities for jobs and education. This is a different geography compared to the United States where rioting is linked to poor inner-city neighborhoods. But, the situations are alike: there is long-standing isolation, negative treatment from the government and police, and not much of a pathway to achieving the “good life” in society.