Close-up of a police-officer's belt from behind. We see a walkie-talkie, handcuffs, and a pistol in its holster.

Changing Behavior, Not Beliefs

The rift between police and Black Americans can feel impossible to bridge. But in his work with police departments across the U.S., Yale psychologist Phillip Atiba Goff has found novel ways to address the problem.

Additional Resources


The Thin Blue Waveform: Racial Disparities in Officer Prosody Undermine Institutional Trust in the Police, by Nicholas Camp, et. al, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2021.

Contacts Between Police and the Public, 2018-Statistical Tables, by Erika Harrell and Elizabeth Davies, Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2020.

The Science of Justice: Berkeley Police Department National Justice Database City Report, by  Kim Shayo Buchman, Enrique Pouget, and Phillip Atiba Goff, Center for Policing Equity, 2018.

Identity Traps: How to Think about Race and Policing, by Phillip Atiba Goff, Behavioral Science & Policy, 2016.

The Essence of Innocence: Consequences of Dehumanizing Black Children, by Phillip Atiba Goff and Matthew Christian Jackson, et. al, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2014.

Seeing Black: Race, Crime and Visual Processing, by Jennifer Eberhardt, et. al, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2004.


Testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee on the police use of force and community relations, by Phillip Atiba Goff on June 16, 2020. 

“How we can make racism a solvable problem – and improve policing”, a TED Talk by Phillip Atiba Goff, 2019.

The transcript below may be for an earlier version of this episode. Our transcripts are provided by various partners and may contain errors or deviate slightly from the audio.

Shankar Vedantam: This is Hidden Brain, I'm Shankar Vedantam. Early in the morning on August 17th, 1999, an earthquake struck Northwestern Turkey. It was a first of two earthquakes that would devastate that nation and parts of Greece. Whole cities were reduced to rubble. Thousands of people were killed and hundreds of thousands were left homeless. Amid the destruction however, something extraordinary happened. Turkish rescue workers saved a Greek child from the wreckage of a building. A Greek man offered to donate a kidney to someone in Turkey, and the Greek foreign minister, George Papandreou, called on his fellow Greeks to offer aid.

George Papandreou: I heard the news and the media immediately asked me, "Have you sent a statement?" And I said, "I sent a statement, but I want to say something more. Why don't we help the Turks? Why don't we give blood?"What made this remarkable is that Greece and Turkey have long had a rocky relationship marked by periods of open warfare and animosity. But George Papandreou saw an opportunity for rapprochement between the two nations.

George Papandreou: I felt this was a real issue, but it was also a political act. The idea of blood of course, has a much deeper symbolism. The interesting thing which I hadn't expected was there was an outpour of help. In the weeks that followed, the blood drive intervention and other aid efforts transformed the way many Greeks and Turks saw each other. They began to view each other not as enemies, but as fellow victims of a terrible disaster. Very quickly, this sentiment spilled over into new domains.

George Papandreou: So then all of a sudden, you saw things coming out which we would never expect. So cookbooks that are Greek-Turkish cookbooks. Of course, why not? We have competitions, who makes better baklava? Then we had TV series where a Turkish man or Turkish woman would fall in love with a Greek woman or a Greek man. And so there were these soap operas that became very popular. The blood drive reframed the relationship. It was a psychological intervention and it was powerful. Today, we are going to look at a similar psychological intervention. It targets one of America's most pressing social challenges.

Phillip Atiba Goff: The way in which radical social change takes place is a step and a step and a step and then a fall.

Shankar Vedantam: How changing the frame around a problem can make the seemingly impossible, possible. This week on Hidden Brain.

Shankar Vedantam: Most Americans have strong and automatic reactions to news reports involving police shootings. Some of us are outraged, some defensive, all of us feel exhausted. It often feels like we are stuck between two camps, one that's outraged about the police and another that's outraged that we are outraged about the police. At Yale University, psychologist Phillip Atiba Goff has come at the problem in a novel way. His data show there are indeed racial disparities in how policing unfolds in many communities, disparities tied not to the occurrence of crime or the prevalence of poverty, but the choices that police officers make. What makes his work unusual is how he thinks we should fix the problem. His novel approach has produced that rarest of things, consensus between police and communities and actual change. Phillip Atiba Goff, welcome to Hidden Brain.

Phillip Atiba Goff: Thanks for having me.

Shankar Vedantam: Phillip, back in 2007, you were starting out as a young faculty member at Penn State. You attended a conference with academics and law enforcement officers. There was a well-dressed black woman sitting in the back of the room. She was a senior officer in the Denver Police Department. You went up to say hello to her, and she said something odd in response. What did she say?

Phillip Atiba Goff: I went up to her because she was sitting by herself and I wanted to make her feel welcome, so I asked if I could sit down and she told me that I lacked the moral fortitude to do anything real with my life.

Shankar Vedantam: So that's an odd thing to say to someone you're meeting for the first time. The woman's name was Tracie Keesee, and she was essentially throwing down a challenge to you as an academic. Give me the context for her to mark.

Phillip Atiba Goff: So there was a 15 year old boy who was suffering from mental illness. He grabbed a knife, allegedly because he was frustrated, he couldn't communicate with his family. His family got scared, they called law enforcement. Law enforcement showed up and killed this boy in his own home. At a town hall meeting that followed, an African American woman asked Tracie, "Do you train your officers to kill young black men?" And this is a slam dunk from a PR perspective. It's an easy question, you just say no and move on. But because of who Tracie is, she actually heard the question. She wanted to know the answer and she realized and then said out loud, "I don't know."

Phillip Atiba Goff: So after that incident, she spent the next two years trying to figure out who could help her answer that question. She wanted someone to work with who would not care about how long it took to get the answers. And she was frustrated by the fact that the academy was not set up to help people answer those questions. So she found me and we began to try and answer, not just that question, but the deeper questions of what do you do with the reality of racism in the context of public safety.

Shankar Vedantam: The boy who was killed was Paul Childs and the incident happened in Denver in 2003. Phillip and Tracie said, "I don't know," to the question, "Does your police department train officers to kill young black men?" What I'm hearing is that she felt there might be something structurally embedded in police practices that made it more likely that an officer might kill a young black man?

Phillip Atiba Goff: It wasn't just, "Hey," maybe there's some structural stuff going on. Maybe the training is having this unintended consequence. It was, "How on earth have we been doing this in this country for a hundred plus a year we haven't bothered to answer that question? And in most places we haven't bothered to ask it of the people who have the capacity to make sure there's an answer." There's a negligence in the way that we've asked questions of our public safety, that reveals that we haven't centered the experiences of the people who fear getting killed by the folks who respond when you call out in crisis. That was a lot of the frustration that I know that she felt in that moment.

Shankar Vedantam: In the year since that meeting, you and Tracie Keesee have set up a national organization. We're going to talk at length about the work you've done, but I want to start by establishing the context for your work. Many of us feel a sense of hopelessness when we hear about discrimination in policing. You say that one reason for this hopelessness is that for the last 250 years, we have defined the problem wrong. We have defined the problem in a way that effectively makes the problem unsolvable. What do you mean by that?

Phillip Atiba Goff: So if the problem is individual character, inside hearts and minds, a defect of the soul that we've got to fix. There are many problems with that, the first of which of course is that it doesn't track particularly closely with the science. But probably more importantly, it's just a hard problem to fix. And then we're having a conversation about a thing that is almost impossible to reliably measure. There's no saliva test to be like, "No, you're 45% racist so now you definitely got to go to the re-education center." There's no way to really know. And even if you could, then you've maybe fixed the one person and that's not going to work across 18,000 law enforcement agencies in this country. And that's just law enforcement, forget about everybody who's got access to 911 and can use law enforcement as their personal racism concierge. So it creates layers of difficulty at solving the problem from the difficulty detecting it to the ability to actually change hearts and minds and that is exhausting when you look at how often we have racism producing outcomes that are so tragic as to make you have to shut down your whole life for a day or a week or a month or longer, forget about the country.

Shankar Vedantam: I want to look at three examples from the news that illustrate how we have long thought about the problem of disparities in policing. Later in the show, we look at how redefining the problem can help us rethink those challenges. In March of 2021, two police officers responded to reports of gunfire in the Chicago neighborhood, Little Village. They chased a suspect, Adam Toledo down a dark alley. Can you tell me what happened next?

Phillip Atiba Goff: Adam Toledo was a boy. He was hanging out with somebody else who allegedly had fired a gun. That individual was closer to adulthood, handed the gun to Adam Toledo who ran away. And then when realizing that law enforcement was close, tried to dispose of the gun in a way that he wouldn't get in trouble. The officer saw the gun, saw it flash and move, and then killed Adam Toledo.

Shankar Vedantam: I remember there was a huge debate about the case. Some people said, "Shooting a 13 year old child, simply unacceptable, nothing more to discuss." Others said, "Hang on, the police could not have known that he was 13 and Adam Toledo looked like he was armed. The officer had to make a split second decision. He did not know if Adam Toledo was raising his arms to surrender or raising his arms to open fire." So each side not only feels they are right, but that the other is unsympathetic, irrational, maybe even evil.

Phillip Atiba Goff: That's exactly right, and this is one of the reasons why this becomes impossible. You start seeing this from the officer's perspective. And in Chicago, in particular, you have an armed populace. You don't know the age of the person, you know that they're running away, they're probably faster than you so there's a chance that they're going to get around the corner and then wait for you. You clearly see a weapon, you know that there was supposed to be a weapon present and the person is turning to face you, "And now I got to make a decision, and if I'm wrong and they've got a gun and they're pointing it at me, that's the last mistake I ever get to make." There is a saying in law enforcement, "I'd rather be tried by 12 than carried by six." And so you make the decision that makes sure you go home at the end of the day, because the majority of people you're dealing with are people who you think want to hurt you. And from a community perspective, every piece of that seems sociopathic and homicidal. There is a scared 13 year old boy who has been burdened by an older person trying to make sure that our incredibly cruel criminal legal system doesn't catch him too. And while complying with the asks of every adult around him, he's executed. Here to me is the crux of the whole thing, if we can't imagine that we could have prevented that situation in the first place, it's our failure of imagination that gets kids like Adam Toledo killed.

Shankar Vedantam: Let's look at another case that shows a different facet of the problem Phillip. In Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, police stopped Daunte Wright for having expired car registration tags. Now, many listeners will be familiar with the story since the police officer involved was recently found guilty of manslaughter. But tell us what happened when the police pulled Daunte over.

Phillip Atiba Goff: So the senior officer who is also a training officer is trying to restrain Daunte Wright as Daunte Wright is trying to get away and that senior officer then calls out, "Taser, taser, taser." That's what you're supposed to do when you grab the taser, let everybody know there's an energy controlled weapon, let them get clear. She does not in fact grab the taser, she grabs her firearm, shoots and kills Daunte Wright.

Shankar Vedantam: So I feel in the aftermath of these incidents, there are often multiple claims and counterclaims. Daunte Wright's mother said he called her during the incident and said he'd been pulled over because he had air fresheners hanging from his rear view mirror. Now that sounds like a trivial infraction and many people concluded it showed the police had malicious intent. But I want to play you a clip from Brooklyn Center, Police Chief Tim Gannon at a news conference shortly after the shooting.

Tim Gannon: It is my belief that the officer had the intention to deploy their taser, but instead shot Mr. Wright with a single bullet. This appears to me from what I viewed and the officer's reaction and distress immediately after that this was an accidental discharge that resulted in the tragic death of Mr. Wright.

Shankar Vedantam: So the family is saying, "Look, who pulls over someone for hanging air fresheners in their car? It's racist cops of course." The police say, "No, the cop was distressed after the shooting, this proves she could not have been racist." And almost instantly, we start arguing about what's happening inside the police officer's mind.

Phillip Atiba Goff: That's exactly it. And one of the ways that it's important to understand the way that we do race in the United States, we've got scripts. If I tell you a story and there's an attractive woman walking her dog, the dog pulls on the leash and she falls down and then a very attractive gentleman who probably has a British accent goes to help her up, and she's embarrassed. Where are we? We're clearly in the middle of a romantic comedy and that was a meet-cute. But we don't just have genres for movies, we have genres for the stories that play out in our society. And the story, the tragic, awful killing of Daunte Wright and the killing of Tamir Rice and the killing of Adam Toledo, we quickly put that inside of genres where the relative question is how sinister is the officer, how deserving of death was the victim? And those are terrible genres to help us write the narratives that get us out of here, which is why the definition of racism is so much part of the problem. If that's not our definition, we have to tell different stories.

Shankar Vedantam: Controversial cases involving police shootings of black people, often devolve into discussions about intentions and character. As we confront case after case, our framing causes us to reach for sweeping conclusions that reflect our growing sense of despair. This is what happened after police in Louisville, Kentucky used a no knock warrant to enter the home of 26 year old medical technician, Breonna Taylor.

Phillip Atiba Goff: My understanding is they went into a house that they thought people were distributing drugs. They thought that there might be armed conflict once they entered, and that those who were in the house were going to be a flight risk. And those are the criteria often that law enforcement uses to request a no knock warrant so that they can enter without announcing themselves in advance other than to say, "Here we are, we're Louisville PD, now your door is kicked in and we are in your house."

Shankar Vedantam: Breonna Taylor's boyfriend opened fire when he thought intruders were breaking into the home. The police fired back and killed Breonna. Shortly afterwards, a grand jury declined to indict the officers. Here's how Breonna Taylor's family attorney, Benjamin Crump responded.

Benjamin Crump: It underscores what we have been saying all along. There seems to be two justice systems in America, one for black America, and one for white America.

Shankar Vedantam: Phillip, you're sleeping inside your own home. You wake up to the sounds of people breaking in, seconds later there's a gun fight and you end up shot to death. From the point of view of the black community, it's easy to feel that the system is rigged against you.

Phillip Atiba Goff: There are particulars to the charging in that case that were incredibly bleak. And I should clarify here, there are multiple black communities, many of whom saw Breonna Taylor's fate as something that could have happened to them.

Shankar Vedantam: I'm glad you pointed out there are many black communities. As a black man yourself, Phillip, have you ever had to worry about a police officer pulling a weapon on you?

Phillip Atiba Goff: I'm a black man in America so of course I have. Even once, while I was shadowing law enforcement to learn how they did it, I was mistaken for a protestor and approached aggressively by law enforcement and I had to have a captain step in and be like, if you harm one of the very, very few hairs on man's head, there will be problems. If you're black in the United States, and this hasn't happened to you, you're living a vanishingly rare life.

Shankar Vedantam: And of course, as anger at the police has grown in many communities, the police feel increasingly betrayed. I want to play you a clip from former Milwaukee Police Chief, Ed Flynn.

Ed Flynn: All of those issues are magnified by what's basically been an unrelenting campaign to delegitimize, stigmatize and dehumanize America's police officers. A climate's been created in which the deranged as well as the career criminal, well armed feel emboldened to engage their desires to basically assassinate police officers

Shankar Vedantam: Setting aside whether police are right or wrong to feel this way, is it accurate Phillip from your experience working with police departments to say that many officers feel like they are under siege?

Phillip Atiba Goff: That's the right way to frame it. Morale amongst law enforcement is lower than I've ever seen it. Morale among black officers is particularly low because they live frequently with other black people, they go home frequently to black communities and they catch all of the invective from those communities and they feel it. And then they show up to a department that wants to erase or dismiss the critiques that they themselves often have.

Shankar Vedantam: The rift between police departments and black Americans can feel impossible to bridge. And yet, in working with individual departments across the country, Phillip has found ways to begin to make progress. That's when we come back. You're listening to Hidden Brain, I'm Shankar Vedantam.

New Speaker: This is Hidden Brain, I'm Shankar Vedantam. Many of us carry around a model of what it means to be a racist. That model usually involves reading the mind of the person, drawing conclusions about their intentions, their motivations, their animosities. At Yale University, psychologist Phillip Atiba Goff has been asking a different question. Instead of spending hours fruitlessly arguing about a police officer's intentions, what happens if we focus less on her character and more on her actions. Phillip, many police officers say the tragedies we hear about in the news are outliers. You've studied police use force among white and non-white suspects. Does the data show systematic differences in how police treat blacks versus whites?

Phillip Atiba Goff: Of course, the data reveal that. The first step in answer to that question is, are there disparities? And there are massive disparities. The second question which is immediately harder is, how much of those disparities are driven by things police really can't and shouldn't be asked to control, things like poverty or crime. And in fact, if we think that racism doesn't just exist in policing, which by the way, it doesn't, it exists in education, in housing, in employment, in healthcare. So that crime is a lagging indicator of other forms of racism. In other words, you can make the argument that, "Hey, racism's bigger than just police," and that bigger racism is driving some of these disparities. So what part belongs to the police and what part doesn't? The answer is simply poverty and crime are insufficient to explain racial disparities in a police use of force, stops, arrests or other burdensome police behaviors. What we see is that black folks across the country are about four times more likely to have force used on them than white folks. When you control for crime and poverty, black folks are in our data somewhere between one and a half times as likely and 16 times as likely. Sometimes it gets worse because of the spatial distribution of law enforcement.

Shankar Vedantam: So Phillip, when we look at data like that, it's easy to conclude that racism has to be behind these disparities. But you once wrote, "There is mounting evidence that racial discrimination can occur, even absent racial bigotry, either overt or covert." What do you mean by that?

Phillip Atiba Goff: I just want to reframe just a little bit that question. It is racism, it just doesn't have to be bigotry. Bigotry and prejudice, that's inside. I want us to get that racism is that pattern of behaviors out in the world. So for instance, when a family is dealing with someone who is in the midst of a mental health crisis, they may try and talk to someone. They may try and reach out for help to someone at a hospital. They may try and set something up for a clinic. When that family member who is in mental distress doesn't want to go, we don't have any resources that are available to the public to help out. And what that means is that people who have a lot of money have other folks they can call. They can spend money on private therapy, they can spend money for family counseling. And people without money, the only place they have to call when it gets really bad is 911, and 911 has three options, a fire, ambulance, or a badge and a gun. And so that's how without needing to dislike black people, it may in fact be black family members as it was in the case of Paul Childs who cry out for help, but the way we have structured the system says that the folks who have the least don't get the set of options and resources that would prevent them from needing our systems of punishment to come and take the place of the systems we should have for care.

Shankar Vedantam: Now, we talked earlier about your meeting with Tracie Keesee. The two of you started an organization called The Center for Policing Equity and you wanted the focus to be not on what's happening inside the hearts and minds of police officers, but on what they do. You say there's a long precedent for this idea in policing, at least when it comes to combating crime?

Phillip Atiba Goff: That's right, and I wish that I had figured out earlier that there was a really easy way for everyone who's ever worked in an organization to understand it. It's just performance management, that's it. It's nothing more fancy than that. In law enforcement what they've done for the last more than quarter century, is they've measured crime. And about 80% of law enforcement agencies use something like what's called CompStat. But in its purest form, the idea is you should be paying attention to crime. If your goal is to prevent it, you should be looking for patterns. And then when you're done finding the patterns, you should be trying to hold yourself accountable for driving down the rates of crime. That's performance management 101 in any organization, what do you want to get done? What do you want to avoid? Track it, hold people accountable to it.

Shankar Vedantam: So let's see how we can apply this model of performance evaluation to reducing discrimination in policing. In 2011, you got a call from the Las Vegas Police Department, they were confronting accusations that they used force too often. Now, instead of saying, let's examine the character of the officers in the department, of course, that's hard to measure, hard to change, it's a bad metric for performance evaluation. You looked at the data and found something tangible that could be measured and could be changed. What was it?

Phillip Atiba Goff: What we found is that after foot pursuits, we saw a higher rate of use of force across the board. Now a foot pursuit is when someone runs away and the officer takes chase on foot, it's not that complicated. But it's pretty easy when you go back to someone you say, "Well, what does that feel like," to understand why you get higher rates of force. Because you took off so I'm running after you, that means my heart rate is up, my adrenaline is going. I know you're a bad guy because who runs from the cops but bad guys in the minds of officers. And then if you go around a corner, maybe you have a gun around the corner or there's a friend who's there to hurt me. So even if you turn around and you say, "Hey, please don't hurt me," and put your hands up, you might be getting a shot to the kidneys for the price of making me run.

Phillip Atiba Goff: And so the result in Las Vegas, once we gave that back to law enforcement and back to the community, they said, "Hey, could you guys just literally take a breath?" And that was the comment, that was the spirit that made the change. They said, "We really probably should. So let's train differently. Let's tell folks that they shouldn't touch someone until backup has arrived." They should count to 10 like everybody learns in their marriage counseling. Do the things to deescalate your body so you don't end up engaging in unnecessary use of force, that's the language of law enforcement. And the following year, we saw a significant decrease in use of force. My memory is it was 23% that following year, and became a national model for how you do experienced based training, all of which goes back to, "What's the behavior? What do we think causes the behavior? What's approximate to the behavior? Can we make a change in the thing that makes that happen that will reduce the incidence of the behavior?

Shankar Vedantam: This takes us back to what happened when we discussed the Adam Toledo shooting. Two people are running, it's a dark alley, they're both frightened, they can't see very well and they have to make split second high stakes decisions. Do this kind of thing regularly and of course bad things will occur. Now I want to draw attention to what happens when you don't focus attention on the character of the police officer, instead of saying bad cops shoot kids, if you say, "Hey look, foot pursuits increase the risk of tragic mistakes, let's try and reduce the number of tragic mistakes in our department." Now suddenly cops and the community don't find themselves on opposite sides of the equation, they find themselves on the same page.

Phillip Atiba Goff: So in negotiations and international relations and in business, we talk about the difference between interests and positions. A position is a thing you’ve got to defend. If I say, "Hey, no one can have their shoes on in my house." You might have a hole in your sock, you're like, "Well, I guess I'm not coming in." But if I say, "Hey, this is a rug that my parents gave me, it's been in the family long time and it's real fragile, we ask people to take their shoes off so that we don't mess up the rug," they'll be like, "Hey, can I walk around the rug?" I'll be like, "Oh yeah, sure. Come in the back door, we can fix this. We can work this out." Because there are so many assumptions built into the way we talk about racism, we end up establishing positions before we've even listened to anybody's interests.

Phillip Atiba Goff: And so the thing that was shocking to me, because I'm a black dude from Philly, I figured when I showed up talking to law enforcement I would find out that racist racists did racist things. That's still true, but the majority of folks I encountered were like, "Oh, we get asked to do too much stuff, and we're definitely going to catch hell in the press and from communities that we really care about in large part because we get asked to do stuff we should never get asked to do." So when you compare the requests that I've received from law enforcement over the last 20 plus years to the requests that I hear from activists, they look really similar.

Phillip Atiba Goff: Law enforcement says, "Get us out of mental health, get us out of substance abuse, get us out of child welfare. Remove us out of the schools. Don't ask us to be on suicide watch. Set up resources so that these communities that are blighted by crime have the things so they don't have to engage in crime in the first place." If I were to tell you that came out of the mouth of an abolitionist, you wouldn't be surprised. The major difference is, law enforcement doesn't usually argue that they should get less money, and activists right now are arguing for that quite loudly. But the substantive policy changes outside of law enforcement have a lot of support from law enforcement veterans, which is especially surprising to folks who are just hearing the national conversation.

Shankar Vedantam: A few years after his work in Las Vegas, Phillip and his team began studying another idea. Think back to the case involving Daunte Wright. Shortly after that shooting, people spent a lot of time arguing about whether the police officer who pulled the trigger acted out of malice. Few people stopped to ask a more basic question, should armed police officers be pulling over drivers for expired tags? Turned out this was also a question both the local community and the police were pondering in California.

Phillip Atiba Goff: The Berkeley Police Chief reached out in part because of pressure from communities in Berkeley, California. And they had the idea to look at: What are we doing on traffic stops? If you've got a lot of physical violence in a place that would never have happened if you didn't show up, the best solution might be don't show up. The old joke is, "Hey doc, it hurts when I go like this," doc says, "Don't go like that." And in Berkeley, they decided any low level traffic enforcement, let us mail you a ticket, because that's going to be safer for the officer, it's going to be safer for the resident, and likely nobody dies from a paper cut.

Shankar Vedantam: To be clear, Phillip is not saying there is never room for armed police. He's saying, ask yourself if an officer with a badge and a gun needs to be your first response to a problem. If someone is driving around with expired tags and you can send them a ticket in the mail, they might just pay the fine and get their tags renewed, problem solved. If they don't respond to the ticket, you can then think of escalating your response. The very same principle applies to the use of no knock warrants. Phillip told me about a local jurisdiction in New York that asked for help.

Phillip Atiba Goff: We got involved with Ithaca and Tompkins County, they wanted to do this together. And so really important, it is really their work that we're talking about here. They brought school-aged kids in to hear about their experiences and to say, "If we wanted to start over, start from scratch. What would that look like? If we were really focused on protecting folks who are vulnerable, what systems would we build?" And it turns out that when you start that exercise, you don't start with police. You don't start with folks who have the ability to dole out violence in order to get compliance with the law, you start with the basic necessities of living. And so the communities in Ithaca and Tompkins County said, "Well, we're going to want folks who can respond to violence, but we want them directed by folks who are thinking about community solutions to public safety that will often not require law enforcement. And along with that, our set of recommendations, including, we shouldn't have no knock warrants. We should be a community that knows who lives here well enough that we don't have to resort to the element of surprise to deal with folks who are damaging the communities. And when the community wants those folks to stop their behavior or even to be taken out of it.

Shankar Vedantam: Phillip, in some ways I'm struck by the fact that what you're advocating and no disrespect here, it's actually not rocket science. It's almost common sense. If you want to reduce the risk that the police will shoot someone by mistake, the first thing to do is don't send armed police to situations that don't require armed police.

Phillip Atiba Goff: So the hard part here is figuring out the interests and figuring out where is their room to move? Where can we get collaboration, coalition, consensus to move us forward? I say all the time, why are we bringing a badge in a gun to a place where someone's thinking about ending their own life?

Shankar Vedantam: Phillip cites a case where officers were called to a home where a man was pointing a gun at his own head.

Phillip Atiba Goff: And then police said, that's a danger to us and shot and killed him. That's a tragedy on top of tragedy, because the family is concerned that this person is going to die and then calls the state and the state shows up and does it for him. But I wish it were the case that if you don't introduce a gun, the chance of getting shot is zero. Unfortunately we've got so many guns in this country that that's not the case. And that's what law enforcement and concerned community folks will say is sometimes they're scared that if you send up somebody, show somebody with a vest and a whistle, that's not going to be enough. So I wish that this were as simple as an ideological slogan. It cannot be. But the underlying logic is exactly what you say. If our goal is to keep everybody safe and alive, there are lots of times when a badge and a gun are not the best things to be introducing.

Shankar Vedantam: I'm reminded of something I read a while ago. After the US invasion of Iraq, the US military was trying to figure out how troops could be more effective in rebuilding trust with a local community. And one of the things that general David Petraeus eventually concluded was that if you're trying to help people, but you're looking at them through the gun turrets of an armored vehicle, or if you're walking in markets with an M14 rifle slung from your shoulders, it not only makes it less likely people will trust you, it makes it more likely some small incident can end up with a whole lot of people getting shot. So it turns out even in military situations, militarized solutions might end up backfiring. And of course, if that's true in battle, it has to be triply true when it comes to police working in their communities. When everyone is tense, everyone is scared and everyone is armed even in the absence of malice, the simple laws of probability dictate, bad things are going to happen with some regularity.

Phillip Atiba Goff: That's exactly right. And the analogy is apt. Over the last three decades, we've seen a precipitous decline in violent crime across the United States. That is the result of a whole bunch of things. It's community focused projects. It is leadership at the local and the state level, but it's also new techniques in law enforcement of showing up, not arresting the way out of the problem, but showing up to places where violence might happen. And people tend not to do illegal things in the presence of law enforcement. That's a portion of it, even though it's definitely not the only, and it may not even be the largest portion of it. So if I'm law enforcement, I have worked my behind off to try and reduce the crime level because I thought that was my job, and I know that if I'm a chief, I'm definitely getting fired if the crime level goes up and that's almost the only reason I'm going to get fired. I brought the crime level down, why don't you love us? That's a real thing that law enforcement feels. And I don't think it's a response that's untethered to reality, it's just untethered to the experiences in black and brown communities where they say you have been delivering violence while you've trying to deliver us from violence.

Shankar Vedantam: I find it fascinating that you're effectively addressing problems related to racial disparities in policing, without accusing police officers of being bigots. There's very little finger pointing in your work, right?

Phillip Atiba Goff: Yeah. So in my day to day, when I'm talking with law enforcement, when I'm talking with communities, when I'm talking with my team, we talk about race and racism a whole lot. What we don't talk about is whether or not you meant to or are a good person. We don't talk about character, almost ever. But everybody who can answer the question, "Would you like to kill fewer people? Would you like to be engaged in less racial disparity with the,``''Yes, I would like to do that morally obvious thing." There are things that can be done, but we don't have to talk about racism the way most people talk about racism, because the way most people talk about racism is about what kind of person you are and I have found that to be almost entirely irrelevant to making the problem get better.

Shankar Vedantam: Phillip's efforts to reduce racial disparities in policing have been effective, but are they emotionally satisfying? That's when we come back. You're listening to Hidden Brain, I'm Shankar Vedantam.

Shankar Vedantam: This is Hidden Brain, I'm Shankar Vedantam. For years now, working closely with communities and police departments, Yale University psychologist, Phillip Atiba Goff has sought to reduce racial disparities in law enforcement. Every time he and his organization, The Center of Policing Equity go into a community, they start by looking at the data. When and where are police using force? What are the specific contexts and situations that make it more likely an officer will reach for a gun? Are there situations that can be safely resolved by someone who doesn't have a badge and a gun? Phillip, you've worked with the community and the police department in Minneapolis since 2015, you've found that in a disproportionate number of situations where police end up using force, there's one particular group of people involved, who are they?

Phillip Atiba Goff: Whenever we're going into a community, the first thing we do is want to listen to the community. In Minneapolis, one of the areas that was a concern was homelessness. I don't know if you've ever been to Minneapolis, but unless it's June or July, it's cold and it sucks to have to be outside and not have a place you can go that's inside. So folks end up in places where they can stay warm. But what that also does, it makes people feel uncomfortable. And so they call the police, law enforcement shows up, someone who doesn't have a place to live says, "I've not done anything illegal." So they resist law enforcement and then force ensues. You could train law enforcement to recognize that and talk differently about it. Or you could give people housing. This is the thing that is the core of my frustration in doing this work is that oftentimes the only path available to make anything better is to give something to law enforcement. But you could just avoid all of this by having a warm place for people to sleep. And so when communities, activists within Minneapolis were saying, "Hey, we need money for this." We provided some data that said, "Hey, you should do what the community is asking." Take money out of law enforcement, put it into services for unhoused individuals and you can start to see use of force go down.

Shankar Vedantam: So there's something both satisfying and profoundly dissatisfying about your work. It's satisfying because you're making a difference but I think one reason people might feel almost let down by your work is it doesn't give us a feeling of moral triumph. By focusing on what's practical, by focusing on areas where police and communities are in consensus, I feel we miss out on the opportunity for moral triumph and that's a feeling we definitely get when we share hot takes on social media.

Phillip Atiba Goff: Yes. The work that I do is not designed to satisfy Twitter, that is a thousand percent accurate. There's a deeper thing here as well, which is that it is hard to keep people's attention on a story that is so tragic if you don't have a villain. And it's easy to make some of these folks villains because they're villains. Individual cases, absolutely. The problem is oftentimes once you've activated based on that narrative, then the theory of the problem is, "Well then we got to get rid of this person or these people." And you're right back where you started.

Shankar Vedantam: We talked earlier about your work in Minneapolis. Now, as we all know, a few years later, Minneapolis was the same city in which George Floyd was killed by an officer after a convenience store clerk called 911. Now some people might say, "Look, your approach is fixing the problem around the edges. It isn't getting to the heart of the problem, it doesn't prevent egregious cases like this one from happening.

Phillip Atiba Goff: The public lynching of George Floyd was gutting for the whole country. The three years that we were there, we saw about an 18% reduction in police use of force. So the three years before we were there, police use of force was on the rise. Now did we cause that decline? I do not know. So who knows how much of that was us and how much of that was the demands of organizers? How much of that was all together? It's genuinely difficult to say and we weren't set up to test that very squarely. But if there's some portion of the work that we were doing that resulted in one in five fewer people having force used on them, that's not nothing. All of these things are harm reduction. They're reducing the harms of our addiction to punishment in this country, that is not ever going to be the full solution. But I look at this and I say, this was a tragic incident. It was absolutely predictable, not necessarily in Minneapolis, but anywhere where any of this work is going on. It doesn't negate the work that communities did to drive down police use of force. And it doesn't mean that we should be throwing out some of the things that have reduced the harm.

Shankar Vedantam: I love that you're using the framework of harm reduction and I feel like we've had similar debates when it comes to things like distributing condoms in schools or giving clean needles to heroin addicts. There's something so seductive about wanting answers that are all or nothing, just say no to drugs, abstinence only. Harm reduction says, if there's a small win to be taken, take it.

Phillip Atiba Goff: It's not enough, but not enough is better than nothing. I've been black my entire life. I have seen promises. I've seen leaders say what they could deliver, and I have never been part of a moment that didn't feel ultimately disappointing, ultimately less than what was necessary and anyone who tells you that they can fix it all is singing songs from the music man. That is literally a fantastical musical, untethered to what's possible.

Shankar Vedantam: There's another dimension of your work I want to flag because it comes up all the time in the choices we make as a society. So much of what you're recommending is unsexy. It's about prevention. It's not seeing something awful happen and reacting to it, it's asking how do we keep the bad stuff from happening in the first place? And like all successful prevention efforts when it works, no one notices because the bad thing never actually happened. So unsexy might be effective, but you have to admit, it's also unsexy.

Phillip Atiba Goff: So first in response, I want to stick my claim to being the king of unsexy. That is absolutely who I am and what I do. Secondly, this is a part of my concern for the narrative work that's happening right now where there's a promulgation of villains. Because a villain framing for all of this work ends up with the goal, catch them, punish them, let's hold them accountable. And we hear battle cries for justice, for Breonna Taylor or justice for George Floyd, there is no such thing. Justice would've been them staying alive, but most local organizers that we engage are actually saying, "Let's prevent these things from happening in the first place. Let's equip communities with the resources so they don't have to call out in crisis at all." What neighborhood sells houses? What neighborhood has a real estate agent who says, "Hey, the best part about living here, you get to call 911 all the time. It's amazing." That's not a thing. The places where people want to live have the resources so they don't have to call out in crisis. Most of the activists who are doing serious work in local spaces are working on getting the resources set up or getting alternative crisis responders set up so that law enforcement is not our utility tool to handle every crisis that happens in the communities that we'd like to forget existed.

Shankar Vedantam: Something odd often happens when you take the small wins and chip away at a problem. Each effort, each change can seem incremental, but over time Phillip says, it's like a snowball rolling down a hill.

Phillip Atiba Goff: Oftentimes the harm reduction is the way in to engage in more radical change. And sometimes the things that you do that turn the dial slightly it's like falling asleep. Happens slowly and then all at once. Oftentimes that is the way in which radical social change takes place is a step and a step and a step and then a fall. And my hope is that's where we're headed in terms of keeping black communities safe. A step and a step and a step, and then a fall, a fall into a more prosperous country, a more equal country where folks have the resources they need to not have to call out in crisis in the first place. Where we send the appropriate resources, which are not always a badge and a gun when they do have a crisis and where all of these things we're doing to change the systems that we have don't impede the creation and the destruction of the systems that we need to move forward. For anybody who's feeling despondent right now, what I would say is that often hopelessness is a luxury. It's not an option for the people who are working hardest in this space because Hopelessness is the end of the work and we're just at the beginning.

Shankar Vedantam: Phillip Atiba Goff is a psychologist at Yale University, along with Tracie Keesee he is co-founder of The Center for Policing Equity. Phillip, thank you for joining me today on Hidden Brain.

Phillip Atiba Goff: Thanks for having me.

Shankar Vedantam: Hidden Brain is produced by Hidden Brain Media. Our production team includes Brigid McCarthy, Ryan Katz, Kristin Wong, Laura Kwerel, Autumn Barnes and Andrew Chadwick. Tara Boyle is our executive producer. I'm Hidden Brains executive editor. Our unsung hero this week is Simon Owens. Simon is a tech journalist who runs a newsletter about trends in the media industry. It's a wonderful resource for podcasters. Simon recently made time to chat with us and he had some useful suggestions on how to grow our newsletter audience. Thank you so much for your insight, Simon. Speaking of our newsletter, you can read it and subscribe at Every week we bring you interesting research about human behavior, as well as a brain teaser and a moment of joy. I'm Shankar Vedantam, see you soon.


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