Police officers watch as demonstrators protest the death of black teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. on Aug. 12, 2014
Mario Anzuoni/Reuters

Holder launches historic study of police bias, profiling

Attorney General Eric Holder announced the launch of a multi-million dollar initiative aimed at bridging the gap between law enforcement and the communities they serve on Thursday, saying that the fallout from the police killing of Michael Brown was a reminder of just how wide that gap remains.

The new effort, the National Initiative for Building Community Trust and Justice, is a 3-year, $4.75 million partnership between the Justice Department and a consortium of national law enforcement experts, social scientists and evidence-based researchers. According to the DOJ, the initiative will invest in training and development in the police force, as well as “research to combat distrust and hostility between law enforcement and the communities they serve.”

“The events in Ferguson reminded us that we cannot allow tensions to go unresolved.”
Attorney General Eric Holder
“The events in Ferguson reminded us that we cannot allow tensions, which are present in so many neighborhoods across America, to go unresolved,” Attorney General Holder said on Thursday. “As law enforcement leaders, each of us has an essential obligation and a unique opportunity to ensure fairness, eliminate bias, and build community engagement.”

Holder called the initiative “a major step forward” and an opportunity to build on the pioneering work that the Justice Department and our law enforcement partners across the country are already doing to strengthen some of our nation’s most challenged areas.”

PHOTO ESSAY: How the crisis in Ferguson unfolded, in photographs

As part of the initiative, the Justice Department will fund and collaborate with a consortium led by the Center for Policing Equity at UCLA, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, the Urban Institute, and Yale Law School. A national board of advisors including law enforcement officials, community leaders and civil rights advocates will work in tandem with researchers to help guide the consortium’s efforts. Those efforts include five initial pilot sites and the establishment of a clearinghouse where stakeholders, police and those working in criminal justice can access research and information.

Researchers say the initiative is helping to fuel the nation’s most expansive look at police behavior, bias and the factors that impact building trust with community members. The efforts will holistic and offer data analysis, technical assistance and new research tools.

“This work is about far more than the steps law enforcement can take to bridge the divide of trust,” Holder said. “It’s also about the responsibilities that communities have to engage constructively with police.”

The Justice Department set out in April to develop the program. And the idea for a broad, evidence-based program to address lingering issues with racial profiling and tension between many of America’s poor and minority communities and the police are all original tenants of President Barack Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper program, launched earlier this year and aimed at bolstering the lives of young men of color.

“It is the largest dollar amount and most diverse and robust group of researchers and practitioners put together to date.”
UCLA professor Phillip Atiba Goff

But in the wake of the killing of unarmed black teen Michael Brown by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri last month, the administration’s efforts have taken on a renewed sense of urgency. While police say officer Darren Wilson shot Brown as he reached for the officer’s gun, a slew of witnesses contradict those claims and say Wilson shot Brown while the teen attempted to run away. In the wake of the killing, supporters of Brown took over the city’s streets in protest. There were violent clashes with the police in which a heavily-militarized force fired rubber bullets and tear gas into overwhelmingly peaceful crowds of demonstrators.

The Justice Department and the FBI have launched parallel investigations into Michael Brown’s death. The DOJ has also launched a separate investigation into the Ferguson Police Department to determine the veracity of past claims that the department had violated the rights of black residents.

The killing of the unarmed teenager and the violent response by police revealed a troubled history between the members of the mostly black city and the majority white police force. There have been allegations of a wide range of police abuses. At the same time the city operated what some residents described as a criminal justice system that essentially allowed the city to profit from the poverty of many of those caught up in it, through excessive arrests and exorbitant costs associated with court fines and fees that increased dramatically when people were unable to pay.

Holder visited Ferguson last month and met with police brass, clergy and community leaders. He talked with and listened to residents recount their stories of unfair treatment and assured them that the DOJ would be keeping its eye on Ferguson and that the department would be working behind the scenes to cool tensions.

Holder’s visit was unprecedented, but followed a mandate expressed when he was tapped by President Obama to aggressively enforce federal civil rights law.

“I am the attorney general of the United States,” Holder told a group of local college students during his visit. “But I am also a black man.”

Holder added: “I understand the mistrust.”

UCLA professor Phillip Atiba Goff, a visiting scholar at Harvard’s Kennedy School and president of the Center for Policing Equity, said the new initiative is a “quantum leap forward” in efforts to mend the broken link between communities and police.

“What this does is it institutionalizes the work that has been going on for the last several decades on bias reduction and fair and effective policing,” Goff, who is among the leaders of the initiative, told msnbc. “It is the largest dollar amount and most diverse and robust group of researchers and practitioners put together to date.”

Last year, Goff’s Center for Policing Equity received a grant from the National Science Foundation to begin the formation of the first national database on police stops, use of force and violence in order to help paint a truer picture of racial profiling in America. As it stands, there is no federal aggregation of data on who is stopped, under what circumstances and the results, Goff said.

Through the center’s efforts, police leaders from across the country are volunteering to take part and are hoping to take what they learn to help shape their policing and bolster transparency.

“This is the first good news story on race and policing in a long time,” he said. “Many law enforcement leaders want to do the right thing proactively, but we don’t have any carrots. We have a lot of sticks, but not many carrots. What we are doing here is producing a bunch of rigorous, evidence-based approaches to give them the carrots.”

Goff said this latest partnership with the DOJ will take what the Center for Policing Equity out of a silo and team their work with others in the field.

“This is the collection of all the best science being done all over the globe on the most important issue to policing in a Democratic society,” Goff said. “This is an institutionalization of decades of momentum in the field.”

Holder launches historic study of police bias, profiling