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UCLA professor creates database to curb discrimination

By Julia McCarthy

Nov. 21, 2013 1:30 a.m.

A UCLA professor is creating the first national database to document incidents of racial profiling in an effort to decrease racial discrimination in law enforcement.

Psychology Professor Phillip Goff, co-founder and president of the Center for Policing Equity, is currently spearheading the new project that will provide police with a way to record racial profiling incidents under a standardized national system.

Goff and three other professors from across the country were awarded a $1 million grant from the National Science Foundation in July to create a racial profiling database. They expect to begin collecting data next fall.

The database will collect information on pedestrian and vehicle stops and the use of force by police. However, Goff and others involved in the project haven’t yet decided specifically what conclusions will be drawn from these two factors.

The choice to look specifically at these two areas of police enforcement is based on former data collected by the CPE in Houston and San Jose, Calif. said Meredith Gamson-Smiedt , executive director of the CPE.

She said that both areas proved to be good predictors of racial inequities in law enforcement.

Goff said he hopes the database will provide a way for communities and law enforcement officials to work together, something that traditionally hasn’t been done.

“Right now people believe there is a problem with racial profiling (by) law enforcement in the United States … but we don’t even have a measure for it yet,” Goff said.If you can’t measure a problem, how can you possibly manage it?”

The database will make it easier for police departments to tackle the areas that show the most frequent occurrences of racial profiling once the data is collected, Goff said. He said the project could help show disparities in policing between different districts, such as between low-income and high-income neighborhoods.

Chris Burbank, chief of police in Salt Lake City, originally thought of the idea for the database. Burbank reached out to Goff with the idea at the CPE’s 2012 summer conference.

Burbank said that he wants to work toward reducing racial bias in policing, and that he believes his department’s involvement in the database project can help achieve racial equality in law enforcement.

The project depends on the voluntary participation of police departments. More than 30 police departments already agreed to contribute data to the database.

Information can only be put into the database once all the police departments are operating under a standardized method of data collection, Goff said.

Police departments across the country collect different variables for pedestrian and vehicle stops and the use of force. Data collection is either mandatory, voluntary or not done at all.

Utah officers, for instance, are required to note the race of the individual, the reason for the stop and the officer ID number in accordance with Utah Public Safety Code 53-1-106, but in California, under California Penal Code 13519.4, data collection is entirely voluntary.

To solve the problem of differing methods of data collection, the database is hiring consultantsto work with each police department involved in the project, Gamson-Smiedt said.

Laboratory manager Franccesca Kazerooni said UCLA students can become involved in the project through working in the lab.

Zubeda Dhada, a fifth-year psychology student, who works in the lab as a research assistant, said that database will give communities that feel threatened by racial profiling a path toward equality.

All police officers will be anonymous in the database, Goff said.

Additionally, members of participating police departments and communities will gather at two conferences this spring to figure out the method and manner of data collection, Gamson-Smiedt said.

Gamson-Smiedt said that groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People are already beginning to collaborate about the database and will help decide which variables will be collected.

Goff said that the support from the various communities so far has been positive.

Once all departments are working under a standardized system of data collection, the Psychology of Social Justice Lab at UCLA will organize and interpret the information, Goff said.

The database will also include information on climate assessment, or attitudes of police officers, through methods such as psychological surveys answered by police officers.

The database project currently has five full-time staff, five postdoctoral students and four graduate students working on it.

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Julia McCarthy | Opinion columnist
Julia McCarthy has been an opinion columnist since 2013. She was an assistant opinion editor from 2014-2015. She writes about national and local politics, sexual assault and harassment prevention and campus resources.
Julia McCarthy has been an opinion columnist since 2013. She was an assistant opinion editor from 2014-2015. She writes about national and local politics, sexual assault and harassment prevention and campus resources.
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