Phillip Atiba Goff, co-founder and president of the Center for Policing Equity (CPE), and the very first Franklin A. Thomas Professor in Policing Equity at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City, likes to say that his career has been a series of happy accidents. And while he may owe some of his professional success to being in the right place at the right time, his combined passions for research and social justice no doubt changed the course of his life.
Goff had no plans to become a social psychologist—let alone a data scientist with expertise in policing—when he was an undergraduate student majoring in African American studies at Harvard University in the late 1990s. But when he was selected for the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship, a program that aims to diversify the academy by supporting scholars on their path to a PhD, Goff’s outlook began to change. His academic advisors—among them renowned author and philosopher Cornel West, and sociology scholar and National Medal of Science winner William Julius Wilson—called him out on his habit of writing academic papers about the “internal mechanisms” that defined perceptions of race, without any background in the discipline of psychology.
“I got yelled at, in loving ways,” recalls Goff. “They told me, ‘You should go get that.’”
So he dove into social psychology, enrolling in a PhD program at Stanford University under academic advisors Claude Steele and Jennifer L. Eberhardt, a MacArthur Fellow who investigates the psychological associations between racial biases and crime.
“There was nothing more powerful in making me a real-life scholar than Mellon,” Goff says. “I had an embarrassing set of riches in terms of mentorship as an undergrad. I had absolutely perfect caricature of supportive community in grad school. And I cannot overstate how special and important it was for me.”
At Stanford, Goff became enamored with social science research methods. “That’s an amazing job description when you’re talking about racism, given the way that people have defined [it] as being this internal thing inside people’s hearts and minds,” he says. “I’m the guy who’s supposed to be able to measure that.”
"There hadn’t been anything like it before, with police and social scientists coming together to ask dangerous questions."
In 2004, the year before Goff would complete his doctoral degree, Eberhardt invited him to help with what would become a landmark conference. The first-ever Policing and Racial Bias Conference brought together social science researchers and law enforcement officials from across the country into the same room to unpack racial disparities in policing, and how perceptions about race were impacting police units and the communities they serve.
“There hadn’t been anything like it before, with police and social scientists coming together to ask dangerous questions,” says Goff. “Jennifer [Eberhardt] had a real vision for using the science of psychology in the service of public safety.”
Three years later, Goff encountered more serendipity when he returned for the follow-up conference at Stanford. During the event dinner, he sat next to Tracie Keesee, who was then the district commander for the Denver Police Department (DPD). They engaged in a powerful dialogue, during which Keesee was questioning—fiercely, as he remembers it—whether academics like him had the courage or skill to address policing issues in America, especially when it comes to race.
“I really thought about how this young person could say, ‘This is it. This is what I’m going to do,’” recalls Keesee. “It’s so hard to find someone at that age who is so committed to the relationship between community and policing. Very rarely have I been around people who are all in with their whole being.”
Goff describes their conversation as a “sibling rapport, back and forth, for an hour” that left him determined to help Keesee and others examine how racial bias was affecting policing in their communities. “In the end,” says Goff, “we were basically daring each other to do some research.”
The following year, Goff traveled to Denver to immerse himself in the DPD’s police culture with guidance from Keesee. “You can’t just come to a police dept and start testing. You have to have an understanding of what it means to be a police officer,” she explains. “We put him in patrol, he was on ride-alongs, he sat in briefings…I think some of his early groundbreaking work came out of the Denver research.”
Together, Keesee and Goff established a new initiative that would promote collaboration between social science researchers and law enforcement. When they invited police departments across the country to participate in the initiative in 2008, the response was overwhelming: chiefs of police and sheriff’s departments in cities across the country—from Newark to Chicago to Houston—were chomping at the bit to get involved.Thus, the Center for Policing Equity (CPE) was born. CPE, based in Los Angeles, was “designed to do science to promote justice,” says Goff, who considers himself equal parts scientist and humanist. The Center’s goal is to gather and analyze data on policing in order to better understand police behavior and the biases that may influence it. With data in hand, the police can then take informed steps to address those biases. They can also be held accountable.
CPE was put to the test in 2012 when the chief of the Salt Lake City Police Department attending the CPE’s bi-annual conference at the US Department of Justice asked them if it was possible to create a database to analyze police behavior. Goff and his colleagues were up for the challenge. In 2013, CPE developed the National Justice Database, the largest database of police behavior anywhere in the world, and the first of its kind.
The National Justice Database, which is funded by the National Science Foundation, is a collection of public and police data on pedestrian stops, vehicle stops, and use of force by the police in cities across the US. But the database gets even more granular: it also tracks how many people got shot, how many people were hospitalized, and even how many times a gun was fired. This information enables researchers to determine critical benchmarks nationwide, against which police departments can measure their own performance. Today, the database contains data from hundreds of departments, covering about one-third of the US population.
CPE’s work now centers on the database. “As it turns out,” says Goff, “you can do really good science from that. Because once you have access to the data, you can ask interesting questions that law enforcement couldn’t ask themselves.” You need the data first, explains Goff, to know what questions to ask.
CPE also collects data from local high schools. Beginning in 2009, the Center conducted a four-year study of black and Latino adolescent boys. The expectation, even at CPE, was that the boys who were acting out in school were the same ones getting arrested or engaging in altercations with police. Not so, says Goff. Instead, the study revealed something surprising: that illegal adolescent behavior did not predict whether or not a boy would later be stopped by the police. Rather, the findings showed that if a black or Latino boy was stopped by the police as an adolescent, he was much more likely to engage in illegal behavior later on.
The longitudinal study was a reminder to Goff that the debilitating effects of racial bias in policing are not driven by bad seeds on either side. “Systems are larger than individuals, even the most important decision-makers,” he explains. He also believes that the voices of youth are especially important if the goal, ultimately, is social justice. “If we’re not listening to those voices, we’re missing the language of truth that best encapsulates the moment we’re in and the places where we’re supposed to be focusing our efforts.”
“Once you have access to the data, you can ask interesting questions that law enforcement couldn’t ask themselves.”
CPE now has offices in Los Angeles, Salt Lake City, Washington, DC, and New York City, where Goff lives and teaches. Every police department they partner with has approached the Center of their own initiative. “Every one of them came to us,” Goff explains. He says they genuinely want to do a better job in their communities, and a better job addressing racism in their departments. In turn, he remains committed to his organization’s original mission: using robust research to support equity and inclusiveness—not only within police departments, but also between the police and the communities they serve.