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Opinion/Commentary: Lessons from Charlottesville: Using science to change public safety

Opinion/Commentary: Lessons from Charlottesville: Using science to change public safety

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Four years ago in Charlottesville, a group of far-right white supremacists and self-identified Nazis raised torches and marched through the streets chanting “Jews will not replace us” — a scene many found difficult to believe was taking place in 2017.

Those two days prompted a national reckoning about the prevalence of racism and supremacy in our country. It was also the catalyst for the Charlottesville Police Department to remove our blinders and confront systemic racism in our own institution and the systems of criminal justice.

Around the country, the aftermath of the Unite the Right Rally — a reprehensible display of racism and violence that culminated in the murder of Heather Heyer — galvanized activists and advocates, shining a spotlight on the corrosive, systemic dangers of white nationalism and racism. The ugly rally led to a national discourse regarding contested spaces, and the prevalence of Confederate monuments in our parks and capitals, the country’s immoral legacy of slavery, and more. Similar conversations were happening in the Charlottesville Police Department.

Shortly after the Unite the Right Rally, the Charlottesville Police Department — led by Dr. RaShall M. Brackney — began digging into its own practices, with an eye toward using data to uncover where and what the department could do better. She and the department began working with an organization called the Center for Policing Equity, a national nonprofit — co-founded by Dr. Tracie Keesee — that uses science to identify and reduce the causes of racial disparities in policing and advocates for large-scale and meaningful change in public safety.

A centerpiece of CPE’s work is the National Justice Database project, in which departments submit data on use-of-force incidents, vehicle stops and pedestrian stops. CPE then applies its rigorous analytical framework to answer questions about racial inequities in these practices, as well as point to possible contributing factors to any identified inequities.

As important conversations take place around police accountability and transparency, communities are increasingly calling for accessible and complete data from their local departments. Understanding that data can be a way for communities and police departments to agree on a common starting point for the racial disparities that exist, as well as a tool for reducing those disparities — for example, through illuminating patterns of misconduct that may otherwise go unnoticed.

While bigger cities like Chicago or New York may have the infrastructure in place to collect and share this information, smaller departments like Charlottesville — which make up the vast majority of the nation’s 18,000 police departments — have a bigger task ahead of them to meet their communities’ data needs. But they can and should take these steps: Charlottesville is proof.

Since beginning the partnership with CPE, the Charlottesville Police Department has made a number of such needed changes to its data collection practices, with a goal of being able to better answer urgent questions about potential disparities in its practices. It has changed its reporting requirements for vehicle stops and use-of-force data, and has funded a Fourth Amendment analyst solely focused on reviewing all investigative detentions and encounters, as well as championing requests for a new Records Management System, a key infrastructure requirement to enable comprehensive data collection.

The department also launched an innovative partnership with law students to analyze trends involving people who were stopped by police and introduced into the criminal legal system versus those who were not, with an aim to uncover opportunities for less burdensome policing. The project is examining departmental policies and trainings to identify how information gleaned from the data collection efforts might inform and improve those policies and trainings.

Along the way, CPE and CPD have invited the community members into this process, recognizing that it’s essential to make changes to public safety and policing with the people affected by current harm. The Charlottesville Police Department is also proud to have strengthened the role of community stakeholders in reform efforts, including providing procedural justice and implicit bias trainings to officers and community members and making departmental policies publicly available. And, on Aug. 31, CPE and CPD are hosting a joint forum to reflect with the community on the progress made, as well as next steps, in this ongoing and essential work.

As more and more leaders recognize the need to remove their blinders, we hope that they will not shy away from the difficult — but achievable — task at hand to measure the size, scope and source of racial disparities in our institutions that affect the lives of our neighbors in often immeasurable ways.

Dr. RaShall M. Brackney is chief of the Charlottesville Police Department, and Dr. Tracie Keesee is co-founder and senior vice president of Social Justice Initiatives at the Center for Policing Equity.

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Michael Paul Williams — a columnist with the Richmond Times-Dispatch in Richmond, Va. — won the 2021 Pulitzer Prize in Commentary "for penetrating and historically insightful columns that guided Richmond, a former capital of the Confederacy, through the painful and complicated process of dismantling the city's monuments to white supremacy."

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