(The Root) — "Six or seven years ago, I was sitting around writing a piece for public consumption. I thought, 'What I could use here are some stats on racial profiling and police brutality.' There were none — there are none. We just don't have the numbers, and that's because there's no mandatory reporting."
He's just received a grant from the National Science Foundation to make it happen.
In the 30 cities that have already signed up and the as many as 70 that Goff hopes will work with him on his newly funded initiative, law-enforcement agencies will turn over data collected about pedestrian stops, vehicle stops and use of force. It will be identical information for every law-enforcement interaction from all of these places around the country.
It's hard to believe that this database doesn't already exist somewhere. Racial-profiling allegations are constantly in the news, in the ever-growing list of unarmed black men killed by police and in a recent string of disturbing stories in which victims were shot while seeking help from law enforcement. Where numbers actually are kept, as with New York's highly criticized stop-and-frisk program, they show a disproportionate number of African-American and Latino men unfairly targeted. But there is currently no national or local mandate for any tracking to occur.
"First, you have to get the [description of the] people who are stopped. There's no federal law that when someone is stopped, police keep track of that," says Goff. "Beyond that, you want to know for what reason, where and for what time they were stopped and detained. Was it because a neighbor made a report and they matched the description? Or just because the officer decided it was the appropriate thing to do?"
How is he getting the police departments to turn over all this information? Surprisingly enough (that is, if you assume that they want to get away with racial profiling), because they want to.
"It's not driven by ACLU. It's not driven by the NAACP. It's driven by law enforcement that wants to do something better. They want to know what the numbers say," says Goff.
"I won't say that every police chief in the country is interested in doing stuff like this — there are legit reasons to be nervous," he continues. "But the majority of commissioners and chiefs get that if they're not behaving in a fair way, they're making their cities less safe. And they know that just saying, 'I'm not racist, and I don't want you to be' [to the members of their forces] isn't enough to fix it."
In other words, they want to do what's good for public safety — and that involves reducing racial bias in policing, which, of course, is more complicated than just declaring it unacceptable.
That's where the data comes in. "You can use the data and treat it like a medical doctor — determine whether a place is racially healthy or racially sick. You can diagnose, and then you start prescribing a set of solutions," he says.
It's what Goff calls "evidence-based social justice and evidence-based equity enhancement." He believes in creating strategies to outsmart the "identity traps" and unconscious bias and associations (think "black men equal criminal") that can affect behavior.
The best part, he predicts, is that, when it comes to reducing racial bias in policing, some of the results of this project will likely be immediate. The process of working with participating law-enforcement departments to standardize the data will take a year, the collection will take another and only then will he report on the results. But according to Goff, the simple collection of data can lead to an awareness and accountability that means unconscious biases are less likely to determine who's stopped, who's arrested and how they're treated.
"You can start seeing the effects in people's lives right away," he says. "The fact that a department wants to participate in this is enough to start the process of sunlight shining in and disinfecting."
Jenée Desmond-Harris is The Root's staff writer and White House correspondent. Follow her on Twitter.