Full Reflection Post


Navigating Positionality on Racial Profiling by Police

The challenges:

  • Navigating positionality in academic work and community engagement on racial profiling by police
  • Improving the ethical issues surrounding expert witnesses, public speaking, and training

The background and policy setting:

This reflection was completed by a professor who studies the economics of stratification, considering such topics as equitable growth, gender, and macroeconomic tools. Their primary research focus has been on racial profiling by the police. The scholar has requested anonymity due to the sensitive nature of this engagement.

The professor reflected that there are severe disparities in race and use of force. In their city in a New England State, approximately 6% of the population is Black, and 35% of the people on whom force was used were Black. This research focus has contributed to their public engagement in their state’s policing practices.

The scholar started working on the issue of racial profiling by police around 2010 when local police departments in one New England state voluntarily started collecting data. In 2007, a prominent community member of color in the city wrote an op-ed on “Driving While Black,” drawing attention to disparities in treatment by police. In response, Uncommon Alliance was formed. This organization is led by a steering committee of minorities who guide the process to address the racial and ethnic disparities within law enforcement and the criminal justice system. The scholar began engaging with the work when they were asked to be a faculty advisor to this organization.

Since then, they have been an expert witness in a number of lawsuits, have published studies on racial profiling by police in New England, and have worked with police departments to interpret their data. In this process of engagement, they find themself navigating two roles: activist and academic. In addition to their academic work analyzing data, this scholar is on their State Police’s Fair and Impartial Policing Committee and on the city’s civilian oversight body. The common ground they find between these two roles and their work as an activist and academic is the data.

The engagement:

The scholar’s work on racial profiling in policing has taken many forms, from providing testimony or training to aiding community organizations and local police departments in understanding data trends. They have also been called to provide expert testimony on race traffic stop data. One of the ethical issues that arises in this work is the rate an expert witness should charge. Many expert witnesses charge upwards of $400-500 an hour. The scholar’s fee has been much lower, and they have been rethinking the ethics of even being paid for this work. They refuse to engage in what they consider exploitation and overcharging for expert witnesses. Further, this scholar and their coauthors question the ethics of accepting any money to testify, particularly when employed as a tenured professor at a public university. More recently, when asked to witness they may serve as a non-report witness: a person who testifies on research that has already been done, rather than reporting on new research. This is one way of addressing the ethical issue of who pays for expert witnesses or data analysis and alleviates concerns of how their own positionality is at play.

The professor noted that by receiving a third of the rate, or none, for their work, they must navigate uncertainty about their qualifications. In these settings of contracted work, if your price is too low, clients may question the quality of your work and your qualifications. To circumvent any doubts, this scholar acknowledges up front that they will not accept pay for expert witness work and that it has nothing to do with the quality of their work. The professor sees this as the most ethical stance to have toward doing data analyses and reporting in this way, due to their position at a public university where this is already part of the job of public service. The scholar noted that it is in part their positionality as a white person, and in part their positionality as a tenured and salaried professor, that draws out the issue of making money by testifying on racial disparities in policing.

Similarly, this scholar is often asked to supply trainings and public speaking on racial profiling issues. They have spoken at the state Public Defender’s Criminal Justice Counsel, trained judges on implicit bias, and developed lifelong learning curriculum through Osher Lifelong Learning Institutes (OLLI). Through these types of events, they decline to accept an honorarium and request that organizers contribute donations to their state-level NAACP or other social justice organizations instead. In response to these issues of pay equity, the scholar asked, “Is capitalism appropriate in this domain or are there other social norms that should shape our decisions on how we are compensated for our time?”

Some of the stakeholders at play in this field of work include police officers, chiefs, and commissioners. As their engagement with the issue of racial bias evolved, this scholar decided to join their city’s civilian oversight body. They applied for and joined the commission two years ago, after several years of earlier data collection on racial disparities in by policing and seeing little change in their own city.

Before they joined the civilian oversight body, lawsuits had been filed against the city’s Police Department and Chief of Police for excessive use of force against two young black men on two different nights. The officers in these cases were not disciplined. The families filed suit against the city and called this professor to be an expert witness. While working on the cases and testimony, this scholar and coauthors decided that to avoid compromising the perception of their academic objectivity, they could not serve as expert witnesses but would honor any subpoenas.

The influence of this scholar’s work was clear in this case when the judge responded to the defense’s motion for summary judgment in one of the lawsuits. The judge rejected the motion for summary judgment and cited the scholar and coauthors’ studies on racial bias as evidence that bias may have influenced officer behavior in the use of force incident.

One of the ways that this professor engages with stakeholders, such as the police, is to build relationships with each group of actors. They engage with law enforcement by presenting results of their race data analysis. They also go on ride-alongs with officers for approximately 6-hour shifts. These begin as formal interactions and shift into informal conversations between the professor and the officer. Through these rides, they have learned that discussing the personal and professional aspects of policing is revealing about the nature of racial bias. They also see how riding along with local officers helps to develop rapport with officers as they build relationships with them.

This scholar also talks to police officers and departments about implicit bias. Police chiefs often call them and ask to be walked through the data of the scholar’s studies when they are released, because they have gained the chiefs’ trust. In turn, some have also asked this professor to do more data analyses. They see this as the beginning of conversations with departments and local actors. Together they can find patterns, but they must look deeper to reveal what the problems are. This professor’s studies are written to be accessible to community groups, who then do the work of holding their local police departments accountable. The scholar sees their role as empowering community actors to do this and empowering police departments to ask questions of themselves and their practices by educating them. Some police chiefs in the state are very open to this and are upset about racial bias in their cities. Other police chiefs, mayors, and police unions deny racial bias and publicly attack this scholar for their work.

What were the implications of the engagement?

The State Legislature passed a bill in 2014 requiring all law enforcement agencies to collect race data in traffic stops, and in 2017 this scholar and their coauthors published the first analysis of statewide data. This work was met by shock and awe in the police community because of what the scholar sees as a typical state belief that it is different from other states. In the first few years that the professor worked on these issues, several agencies began to mobilize. The murder of George Floyd shifted the landscape because it is now an issue that is on everyone’s mind. In 2020, the scholar saw a change in this issue area in that community groups started forming. Citizens began to express a desire for community oversight boards, and there was a minor increase in police chiefs interested in discussing the issues. It is the beginning of the changes to the state’s policies coming into effect.

In recent years, there has also been an increasing number of people among the State Legislature, communities, and police chiefs who are willing to listen about issues of racial bias in policing. For example, the data that the scholar and their coauthors had published caused trouble at a city council meeting elsewhere in the state. Members of the city council and the city manager resigned over this issue. A college professor who lives in the state and her husband responded to the community crisis by interviewing the coauthors and community members. They used this to create a documentary. The scholar sees this as one example of numerous community groups calling on their police departments to address racial bias and talk about the data.

In their studies, the scholar and coauthors make recommendations, often around data collection. One example of this is their recommendation that police end pretextual stops. Pretextual stops occur when the police officer has a suspicion of the driver and criminal activity but no evidence for stopping the vehicle. Minor traffic violations are a pretext for stopping a vehicle. These stops are the heart of racial bias because there is inevitably more suspicion of people of color. The professor recently testified to the state legislature, which came up with a bill two days later using the author’s data to support banning pretextual stops.

This is one instance in which activists have recruited the professor to work for them, and they have felt it necessary to maintain an arm’s length distance in order to preserve their role as an objective analyst. They have seen the changes that this work, via academia, has made in the number of laws and bills passed in recent years. They also see how they are uniquely positioned to do this work as the only academic in their state who studies these issues, and as a person who is uniquely positioned both in public work and academia. The scholar can take positions on bills given their evidence-based, academic position, and wants to keep dialogue open with other stakeholders, rather than being seen as choosing sides as an activist. There are some circumstances, though in which they find their position to be fraught, due to the multiple spaces in which they engage.

For this professor, the key to this work has been building relationships with police chiefs and legislatures. They saw how being willing to write testimony, and willing to go beyond publications, was time consuming but necessary for the work of making the data accessible to the community. They also reflected that being in a small state where they could be involved in their community was advantageous. The scholar has not done this work alone. They consult with those who work in the criminal justice system for assistance in interpreting and framing the data. It is important to them to have a police perspective for understanding the data. The police chiefs that work with them have created space for talking through the issues and building trust. A fundamentally important piece to developing good relationships with police chiefs is developing relationships with police chiefs who speak positively of this professor, their interactions, and their work.

Through this process this scholar has also learned the importance of knowing how to frame the presentation of the data is knowing your audience. They reflect that if they could, they would approach presenting to police officers differently. Talking about data in a strictly presentational style was not the most engaging and empathic way to reach police offers. The scholar knows this work requires building trust.

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Issue Areas

  • Corporate / NGO Engagement
  • DDR / Recovering from War
  • Digital / Cyber Space
  • Economic Issues
  • Environment / Climate
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  • Identity Politics
  • Military Issues
  • Policing
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Type of Engagement

  • Arms length writing for policy audiences
  • Close collaboration with policymakers
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  • Research ethics
  • Scholarly action with policy consequences
  • Writing for policy audiences with which the scholar is connected

Ethics of Engagement