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Where Do We Go From Here? Insights from Social Science

What will it take to end long standing racial disparities and bridge social divides in American society? How can we combat racial bias and all the ways it permeates our institutions, policies, and practices, especially in the criminal justice system? Will the recent deaths of George Floyd, Rayshard Brooks, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, along with the national outpouring of grief, frustration, and anger their deaths sparked, finally move Americans to confront racial bias and reckon with the troubled history of race in this country?

In Biased: Uncovering the Hidden Prejudice That Shapes What We See, Think, and Do, SPARQ Co-Director Jennifer Eberhardt reflects on what it will take for us to truly confront racial bias and combat racial disparities. Science shows that racial bias is both deeply ingrained in our minds and woven intricately throughout our society. While recognizing the power of bias is necessary to confront it, its effects need not be inevitable. Social science can help provide critical insights, tools, and strategies to disrupt and even eliminate racial bias in all its forms.

Here, our team at SPARQ offers a curated set of stories, science, and solutions to help people make sense of the current moment and begin to envision a path forward. We organize these resources around a common set of current and enduring questions and concerns. We start with what we have to offer as social psychologists in this moment, and review key insights from social science about racism, bias, and systems that are vital to the conversation. We then move into more specific questions around policing, police-community relations, and working for change.

  1. What do we have to offer in the current moment as social psychologists?

  2. Why is it so hard to end racism?

  3. What’s the connection between people having implicit biases and the racial disparities we see across society?

  4. Why might the “bad apples” theory of police misconduct fall short?

  5. What is the organizational structure of a municipal police department? Could restructuring a police department shift its culture?

  6. What does it really mean when people call out the culture of policing?

  7. What does policing look like in other places? How might we reimagine it?

  8. Who sets standards for the police? How does law enforcement fit into the larger system of governance and where are possible levers for change?

  9. Can’t we just train police officers to do better? What’s the evidence on implicit bias and use-of-force trainings?

  10. Do police body-worn cameras help or hurt?

  11. Are there successful strategies out there to help bridge police-community divides?

  12. What other groups or organizations are using social science to drive change?


1. What do we have to offer in the current moment as social psychologists?

We know from decades of research that racial bias is both deeply ingrained in the architecture of our minds as well as woven throughout all facets of our society—our institutions, our policies, and our practices. As social psychologists, we examine how racial bias and racial disparities reproduce one another in our heads and in the world in an ongoing, mutually reinforcing cycle. To fight entrenched racial biases and long standing racial disparities, it will be critical to disrupt and reshape this cycle between mind and society. Making lasting change will require nothing less.

At SPARQ, our mission is to partner with industry leaders and changemakers to reduce societal disparities and bridge social divides using insights from behavioral science. It is our goal to put social science insights and evidence-based strategies to work to reimagine and build a more inclusive, equitable, and just society. Using science to confront racial bias and combat racial disparities is at the very heart of what we do.

As social scientists, we use data to understand how people and society work. While we often document “what is” to understand issues and problems, we also study “what could be,” or how changes to how people think, what they feel, and what they do can help point us toward solutions. For decades, social scientists have been documenting racism in American society—what it is, how it operates, and the toll it takes on people and communities. What is undeniable from the data is that Black Americans and communities of color have been living in a society that is pervaded by systemic racism—from criminal justice, to education, to the workplace, to healthcare. At the same time, White Americans have been benefiting from these same systems, which can enable them to deny the power of race and privilege. Many people and organizations in American society are ready for change.

We are committed to serving the public by gathering and making sense of the data, and using the data and insights we gather to drive change. We believe this is a process that, when done with humility, scientific rigor, and in partnership with people working to build a just society, can make a difference towards creating equitable, sustainable, and lasting change. To do this effectively, we must understand the lived realities of the people and communities involved. We must also recognize which ways of thinking and acting lead to dehumanization, division, and inequality and which lead to empathy, connection, and inclusion. We inform our strategies and solutions for change with these perspectives.

Our team works as bridge builders. We know, share, and produce scholarship that helps people understand how racial biases and disparities operate in the areas of criminal justice, economic mobility, education, and health. And we partner with practitioners who are working to confront racial bias and combat disparities in their respective settings. We help strengthen their efforts with insights, tools, and evaluation metrics from the latest social science. We do this by collecting stories that reveal and document the different perspectives and lived experiences at play, providing ways to understand the powerful social dynamics that operate in both seen and unseen ways, developing evidence-based solutions to drive change, and collecting data to evaluate and improve these change efforts as well as ensure accountability.

In the questions that follow, we share what we have learned from working with a variety of stakeholders on issues of race, law enforcement, and police-community relations, as well as what we know from the latest science on key issues. We offer what we know to help people make sense of the current moment and begin to envision a path forward.


2. Why is it so hard to end racism?

Racism is systemic. Race is a constellation of historically-derived and institutionalized ideas and practices that create, respond to, and reinforce human difference. Race organizes everything in the U.S.—how we educate, how we vote, how much wealth our family has accumulated, who can buy or rent into better performing school districts, who has clean drinking water, who is likely to survive childbirth or to die from the coronavirus

Race becomes racism when one group, intentionally or not, casts another group as inherently deficient, inferior, or lesser because of their so-called differences. Racism, however, is not just individual bigotry and prejudice. To say racism is systemic is to acknowledge that racial bias, discrimination, stereotyping, and prejudice do not exist only in the hearts and minds of individual people, but in the worlds in which we live. Racism is produced and reproduced through institutional policies and practices throughout society in ways that elevate and confer advantages to one group over others. Reflecting how important this discussion has become in the current moment, Merriam-Webster recently updated its definition of racism to incorporate a systemic perspective after Kennedy Mitchum emailed them to say that the existing dictionary definition was incomplete. More information about how race operates in the U.S., as well as related discussion questions and activities, can be found here

Cultural narratives about race center individuals, not institutions. Because American culture celebrates the power of the individual, we often suffer from what can be called “institutional blindness.” Value systems such as meritocracy prop up that cherished individualism and the popular American notion that people shape their own destinies by themselves. In actuality, people’s realities are profoundly shaped by the contexts in which they are immersed, including the institutions they engage with, the social norms they abide by, and the narratives they use to make meaning of what they observe in the world. This means that even when racism is acknowledged, it is typically cast as an issue of “one bad apple” or an isolated hate group. Recognizing how cultural narratives shape public opinion—directing attention and blame towards individuals and away from institutions—is important for overcoming their influence. 

Ignoring race means ignoring racism. Though people may have good intentions of treating everyone equally regardless of race, endorsing a “colorblind” ideology ignores the ways in which race shapes our daily lives and organizes our communities and society. People learn to readily “see” race, or categorize each other on their perceived identity. Denying this, as well as the historical and ongoing realities of frequent racial injustice, is a denial of people’s lived reality. Understanding when there is a discrepancy between intention and impact requires empathy and listening—we cannot know with certainty the impact of our actions and inactions on others, but we can ask. Guidance on how to talk about race can be found here and here.  

Haven’t we made significant progress? There has been some progress. Social movements, such as the Abolitionist movement and the Civil Rights movement, have sought to extend human rights and liberties to people not protected under the constitution. That said, practices and policies that often intentionally cause disparate outcomes on the basis of race have simultaneously been implemented to undermine that progress, such as gerrymandering and voter suppression, the war on drugs and mass incarceration, and rising health disparities and lower life expectancies. The result is that racial gaps over time are stubbornly consistent, if not getting worse. For more information, discussion questions, and activities, check out The 1619 Project Curriculum.

Ending racism is so hard because many people are focused on “not being racist.” Ending racism requires actively dismantling racism. Many systems have been designed in ways that create and perpetuate disparities. Racism actively works to uphold the current status quo and thus serves those in power as well as those to whom the current system affords privilege and comfort. To root out centuries of policy-making and narrative-shaping that have advanced racial disparities will require deliberate action. Ending racism requires more than “not making things worse”—it requires transformative, drastic changes in policies, behaviors, and mindsets. The rapid response to the COVID-19 pandemic is a powerful illustration that the entire world can change overnight. Sweeping, previously unimaginable changes can be made—deliberately and without delay.


3. What’s the connection between people having implicit biases and the racial disparities we see across society?

Implicit biases and racial disparities reproduce one another in an ongoing cycle. From an early age, we learn to categorize people into groups and make inferences about those groups—how smart they are, how law-abiding they are, how hard-working they are, etc. These biases, or beliefs and feelings that we harbor about social groups, are influenced by the racial disparities we perceive in the world. They also inform our decisions and actions, often without our awareness. Even more insidiously, our biased perceptions and behaviors can go on to exacerbate the same disparities that influenced our biases.

Social science provides evidence for how this cycle works. For example, research shows that presenting statistics on the higher rate of Black incarceration leads people to be more (not less) accepting of punitive policies such as stop-and-frisk, which disproportionately criminalize Black communities. Similar patterns have been found in urban development, where Black neighborhoods are associated with crime and poverty and thus devalued and subject to health hazards; in education, where teachers are more likely to discipline Black students than White students for the same behavior; and in finance, where highly qualified White-managed firms are preferred over equally successful Black-managed firms. These differential outcomes between Black and White communities then continue to fuel our implicit biases.

Our implicit biases are powerful, but not inevitable. By situating disparities in their root causes, we can challenge the narrative that disparities are a result of the inherent traits or poor choices of particular people or groups, and begin to create more effective, sustainable solutions. Looking at the statistics alone, for example, one might conclude that the higher rate of Black incarceration must be tied to the behavior of Black people, namely heightened violence and criminality. Stereotyping the group as criminal suggests the “solution” is increased surveillance in Black communities or predictive policing. However, these responses don’t address their root causes. They don’t address how crime rates are constructed or the legacy of larger social forces such as redlining, racial policing, and school segregation. To combat this vicious cycle, it’s important to talk about racial disparities in the context of these historical and contemporary policies and practices.


4. Why might the “bad apples” theory of police misconduct fall short?

It’s tempting to equate problems in policing with deliberately racist police officers–what is often called the “few bad apples” or “few bad actors” argument. How we frame a problem, however, shapes how we think about solutions. If a handful of officers are to blame for the failures of modern day policing, then the remedy is to identify the “bad apples” and remove them from the “barrel.” Then the problem will be solved. 

But focusing exclusively on individual officers’ motives and actions obscures the larger forces at play, namely the power of institutions and institutionally-supported practices that can prompt officers to rely on stereotypes when judging suspicion and criminality. When on duty, police officers are not free agents who represent only themselves or have full latitude to act on what’s in their hearts and minds. Rather, police officers are institutional actors bound up in powerful systems. As such, they are subject to many policies, practices, precedents, and laws which put them in a position to produce and reproduce racial disparities and systemic inequity–without personally endorsing inequality or having much choice in the matter, as when carrying out direct orders.

By shifting some energy away from exclusively rooting out the “bad apples” and toward reforming systems, we can tackle the effect of race on policing by intervening directly with law enforcement agencies to change their policies, priorities, and practices, including revolutionizing the use of body-worn cameras, ushering in purposeful culture change, and inviting the community into dialogue and partnership.


5. What is the organizational structure of a municipal police department? Could restructuring a police department shift its culture?

To reimagine policing, we need to understand how it currently works. American law enforcement is uniquely decentralized and localized. There are more than 18,000 U.S. police agencies that employ some 750,000 sworn officers (239 officers per 100,000 residents). More than 15,000 of these agencies operate at the level of city (e.g., a municipal police department) or county (e.g., a sheriff’s department). By contrast, Canada has 181 total agencies and fewer than 70,000 police officers (185 officers per 100,000 residents).

Municipal or city police departments are hierarchical, paramilitary organizations. The chief of police, who is appointed and accountable to the mayor, is responsible for setting agency policy. Police unions—which represent the rank and file—play a role in the development of these policies, as well as practices related to hiring, retention, evaluation, and maintenance of officer records, promotion, and discipline. Through arbitration, officers can appeal disciplinary actions and potentially be reinstated even after being fired for misconduct. Unions are legally required to represent and provide protection, including legal aid, to all members. Law enforcement agencies can have complex organizational structures that include different divisions or bureaus, such as operations (e.g., enforcement and investigations) and services (e.g., professional standards, which can include training). Investigations of alleged police misconduct are most frequently conducted within the agency, by an internal affairs division. 

Organizational structure affects organizational culture. How an organization is structured (or purposefully restructured) will shape the answers to questions such as: to what extent is supervision, transparency, and accountability built into daily practice? What is prioritized and rewarded (or disincentivized and punished)? For instance, rather than having a separate community policing unit, all officers can be engaged in practicing a philosophy of community policing that is clearly spelled out and embraced as central to the agency’s goals. Meaningful change is unlikely to be achieved through a piecemeal process and one-and-done efforts, and instead must be woven into the fabric of an institution through a systemic approach that incorporates reform at every level of an organization.


6. What does it really mean when people call out the culture of policing?

Communities across the United States are calling for police culture to change. Police culture has been cast as irreparably “broken”, and many are urging city governments to “defund, downsize, or abolish police departments” and “reimagine the way policing works.” This includes both the culture of law enforcement as a profession and the organizational cultures of individual law enforcement agencies.

When considering how to change the culture of an institution or organization, as social psychologists we analyze culture as a dynamic system of ideas, institutional structures and policies, and formal and informal practices, norms, and interactions that guide how individuals think, feel, and act. We think of organizational culture at four levels: 1) ideas or an organization’s mission, vision, goals, and values like protecting public safety or preventing crime; 2) institutional structures, policies, and organizational features such as a department’s body-worn camera policy or hierarchical structure; 3) formal and informal daily practices, norms, routines, and interactions like communication between officers or routine interactions with members of the public; and 4) individual people’s attitudes, biases, mindsets, and behaviors. All these levels of culture work together to shape individuals within organizations. In turn, as individuals interact with these different levels of culture, they also contribute to the culture of the organization. The “culture cycle” is a tool to visualize the different levels of culture and how they interact.

Culture matters for how we make decisions, how we understand why people do what they do, how we express ourselves, and what we see, and care about. Some parts of culture may be explicit and formal–e.g., command structure and written rules and policies, while others may be informal–e.g., an understanding about what behavior is normal and acceptable gleaned from interpersonal interactions and/or the observation of others in the institution. Police culture shapes how officers understand their role in the community as well as what they should and should not do. 

While policy change is an often-cited component of culture change, it may not be sufficient–particularly if policy reform is only a drop in the bucket, compared to a so-called tsunami of other persistent cultural forces at play. For instance, in 2016, the Minneapolis Police Department adopted a policy that requires officers to intervene if “force is being inappropriately applied or is no longer required.” However, the officer who kneeled on George Floyd’s neck was not stopped by the 3 other officers on the scene, and some experts point to police culture to explain why: “law enforcement experts say such rules will always run up against entrenched police culture and the fear of being ostracized and branded a ‘rat.’”

The call for culture change is a call to recognize that the issues facing American policing are systemic, and that systemic change depends on understanding the culture of policing and fostering change at multiple levels.


7. What does policing look like in other places? How might we reimagine it?

Whether it’s how police are trained, the laws to which they are subject, or their presence in communities, policing looks vastly different around the world. In most European countries, police training takes as long as 3 years compared to 3-6 months in the U.S. U.S. law enforcement agencies also spend the majority of recruit training time on weapons and fighting—more than 15 times the hours spent on de-escalation tactics. Municipal police officers in some countries, including Ireland, Norway, New Zealand, and the majority of Pacific Islander nations, are not armed at all. Even among countries where police are armed, whether or not an officer is allowed to use their service weapon is subject to different rules. Officers in many European countries, for example, are only permitted to use deadly force when “absolutely necessary.” In the U.S., deadly force is justifiable as long as there is “reasonable belief” of danger.

In Japan, police presence is much more intimate and community-oriented. Koban (“police box”) are located in every neighborhood, and serve as stations where community members can turn in lost items, ask for directions, and report crimes. Community police officers maintain routine contact with the residents through neighborhood patrols and home visits. In comparison, the most common way people come into contact with the police in the U.S. is traffic stops.

From suggestions to rename the police to disbanding police departments entirely, policing is being heavily debated. Some point to the lack of community voice and are pushing for alternative models such as civilian review boards as an added layer of accountability. Others point to training—Georgia police officer Patrick Skinner criticizes the “warrior mindset” and advocates for a “neighbor mindset,” the idea that officers should treat civilians as neighbors, not potential threats. There are also calls to think critically about the role of police in the first place. City governments are reckoning with the fact that police are overextended and often called on to address a myriad of problems (e.g., homelessness, substance abuse). Some police departments agree that social workers and mental health specialists would be better suited to handle these incidents. To reimagine public safety more broadly, the role of both the police and community need to be considered.


8. Who sets standards for the police? How does law enforcement fit into the larger system of governance and where are possible levers for change?

Because American policing is hyper-localized, there are no universal standards. That said, law enforcement agencies are situated within a larger ecosystem of government at the local, state, and federal levels. Knowing the available levers for change across these multiple levels can elevate the focus from how a particular agency can be improved to how the entire industry can be reformed and reimagined

At the local level, for instance, city governments through control of budgets can shift resources from police to other community services, which New York City’s mayor Bill de Blasio announced he would do, as well as move certain types of enforcement activity to civilian agencies. Washington, D.C. has proposed legislation to ban chokeholds and speed up the public release of body worn camera footage of serious use of force incidents. Local governments and district attorneys’ offices can decriminalize low level offenses, which could help reduce the footprint of police enforcement activity on the community and allow officers to refocus energy on violent crime. States set the minimum standards for local law enforcement agencies, often through a Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST). The New York State Legislature on June 8 passed legislation banning racial profiling and requiring police departments to collect data on arrests broken down by race and ethnicity. In recent days, 18 state attorneys general asked Congress for the power to investigate police departments for patterns of misconduct; California is the only state in which the attorney general already has this authority. California is also working to mandate implicit bias training and the promotion of bias-reducing strategies for police officers at the state level. 

Finally, the federal government has the power to investigate police departments for violating people’s constitutional rights and mandate reforms. House Democrats put forth a 136 page comprehensive policing reform bill that would include making it easier to prosecute officers for misconduct, requiring state and local law enforcement to collect and submit use of force data broken out by race to a national registry, and changing the standards for justified use of force from “reasonable” to “necessary.” The following week, Senate Republicans unveiled their own legislation that would increase federal reporting requirements for use-of-force and no-knock warrants, increase funding for body-worn cameras, direct the Justice Department to provide de-escalation trainings, and implement duty-to-intervene policies.


9. Can’t we just train police officers to do better? What’s the evidence on implicit bias and use-of-force trainings?

While the demand for implicit or unconscious bias training is strong, the scientific jury is still out on if, when, and how such trainings are effective—in law enforcement and in other industries. Bias trainings, and their close cousin diversity trainings, need to be more rigorously evaluated. This will require using a wider variety of metrics that track both attitudes (what people think and feel) and behaviors (how people act and react), examining the long-term effects of trainings, and studying how trainings might work alongside other efforts to reform or reimagine policing practices, policies, and culture. Because there are many varieties of implicit bias trainings, we also need to be careful not to lump them together as a single kind of training. 

Calls for de-escalation and use-of-force trainings are also in the spotlight. De-escalation involves strategies to help officers slow down, create space, and use communication techniques to defuse tense situations that could escalate to crises. Use-of-force trainings instruct officers when and how to deploy force, typically along a decision-making continuum that calibrates perception of risk with an escalating scale of force options. We need to evaluate these trainings and learn more about their larger effects. There is some initial evidence that use-of-force reforms have made a difference in big cities, but stronger evidence is needed. Bias trainings and de-escalation and use-of-force trainings are not a silver bullet solution and need to be supported by other efforts. Read more about what these efforts look like and what has been working in Camden, NJ

For trainings to make a difference, they must be bolstered by practices and policies that reduce the effects of bias. Trainings that are one part of a much larger portfolio of organizational changes, including culture change and the development of explicitly anti-racism strategies, will be more effective.


10. Do police body-worn cameras help or hurt?

Over the last decade, law enforcement agencies across the country have increasingly deployed body-worn cameras. By 2016, almost half of police departments in the United States had acquired body-worn cameras, which are used to record police interactions with community members.

Across the board, introducing body-worn cameras is associated with a drop in police use-of-force and citizen complaints. Multiple studies show that body-worn cameras reduce-use of-force, citizen complaints, and injuries to officers and community members. For instance, a randomized control trial in Rialto, CA found that body-worn cameras reduced police use of force and a follow-up study found that this change persisted over 4 years since the initial roll-out. Another study in Las Vegas, NV found that officers with body-worn cameras reported less frequent use of force incidents and fewer citizen complaints, while issuing more citations and making more arrests. Although a recent randomized control trial in Washington, D.C. found no significant difference between officers with and without cameras on use-of-force or civilian complaints, most studies to date have demonstrated the positive impacts of body-worn cameras on police-community encounters. 

Although body-worn camera footage is often thought of as evidence—for example, to clarify what happened in a specific critical incident or citizen complaint—it can also be leveraged as a data-driven learning tool. Body-worn camera footage is a source of rich data about everyday police-community encounters. For instance, recent research analyzed nearly 1,000 traffic stops of Black and White drivers and found that police officers use less respectful language when speaking to Black vs. White drivers. Understanding the nuances of police-community interactions can help us better understand both community and police perspectives and experiences during those interactions. Analyzing body-worn camera footage can also help inform trainings and interventions to improve policing as well as be used to evaluate what works and what doesn’t.


11. Are there successful strategies out there to help bridge police-community divides?

Efforts to improve police-community relations on the law enforcement side are largely centered around two strategies: community policing and procedural justice. Community policing is a law enforcement strategy that prioritizes building relationships and partnerships with the community to foster trust, cooperation, and safety. Watch police officer Lt. Colonel Melvin Russell tell his story of working to bring police and community together in Baltimore.

Procedural justice goes deeper into police-community interactions and focuses on fair treatment during those interactions. The main idea is that feeling like you were treated fairly is more important than the outcome itself. For example, a driver who is pulled over for speeding and given a ticket will leave the interaction with a more positive view of the police if they were treated with respect than a driver who is let off with only a warning but is scolded by the officer. As such, procedural justice trainings promote the value of treating community members fairly and with respect during routine encounters, regardless of the outcome. Research shows that training police officers in procedural justice can reduce complaints against officers and use-of-force incidents. As with implicit bias and use-of-force trainings, these trainings also need to be evaluated more rigorously, which can provide insight into why, in places like Minneapolis, such efforts can fall tragically short.

While these strategies have shown promise, at moments like these they can feel inadequate and short-sighted. Even though building trust is at the heart of community policing and procedural justice, they often don’t address the divergent perspectives and larger dynamics—the histories, lived experiences, expectations, and power asymmetries—that exist between police and the diverse communities they serve. Police mistrust runs deep, especially in neighborhoods and communities of color, where there is serious and historically-rooted skepticism as to whether meaningful reform is even possible.

As alternatives, community members and law enforcement professionals alike have been calling for reconciliation. Reconciliation, along with restorative justice, are engagement and dialogue strategies that work to address these kinds of long standing and entrenched issues. According to the National Initiative for Building Community Trust and Justice, reconciliation between communities and law enforcement “is a method of facilitating frank engagements between minority communities, police and other authorities that allow them to address historical tensions, grievances, and misconceptions, and reset relationships.” Restorative justice brings together those who have a stake in a specific crime or offense to collectively identify and address harms, needs, and obligations as a means to heal and right wrongs. There is growing evidence on how to apply these strategies to bridge police-community divides. Learn more about what taking this approach can look like in Stockton, CA and Baltimore.


12. What other groups or organizations are using social science to drive change?

What other groups or organizations are leveraging social science research to address racial disparities in law enforcement and the criminal justice system and bridge police-community divides? Here is a list that we recommend you learn more about. Share your suggestions with us at stanfordsparq@stanford.edu.


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