You didn’t initially set out to focus on this type of research. Can you share how you were drawn in and what it has meant to your career?
I was always torn about my experiences as a police officer. As a Black man growing up in the South, we were taught to fear police, be respectful and keep it moving because of our nation’s ugly history of deploying the police and other government resources as a tool of oppression. Not to mention the personal and vicarious experiences of being a Black male from an urban area. I never really felt an overwhelming sense of pride about wearing the uniform. And truthfully, I’m still conflicted but appreciate all of my experiences. I wanted to get away from policing and focus on disproportionate disciplinary practices in K-12 schools. But after coming to Georgia State and meeting Richard Wright, then working with my wife, Natasha Johnson, as well as Bill Sabol, Eric Sevigny, and other faculty, I embraced this research and my past experiences. As such, I’ve been able to help impact policy and guide conversations about creating a more equitable, safe and efficient justice system.
Another of your recent research projects found significantly higher arrest rates for Black citizens and lower arrest rates for white citizens when using facial recognition technology. Some state and local governments including Boston and San Francisco have even banned the use of facial recognition technology over these issues. What are some of the concerns your findings raise?
Police deployment of facial recognition technologies (FRT) contributes to greater racial disparity in arrests, according to our recent peer-reviewed study in Government Information Quarterly. This troubling racial imbalance reflects this technology’s association with higher Black arrest rates and lower arrest rates for white citizens.
In principle, this artificial intelligence-powered innovation should help facilitate crime detection and offender apprehension more efficiently and fairly. Far too often, police officers conduct FRT-assisted searches without proper training, supervision or scientific guidance. Yet, despite its promise, FRT’s reported inaccuracies in identifying demographic groups, coupled with AI technologies’ threat of automating officer discretion, leave open questions about its suitability for law enforcement.
We can only speculate on the factors behind our study findings. But we reason they most likely reflect a nexus of factors, including uneven police deployment in Black neighborhoods, work conditions ripe for cognitive shortcuts, the automating effects of AI technologies on officer decision-making and intensified enforcement activity associated with police technologies.
More importantly, our study shows that law enforcement and technology are interconnected with broader social forces, suggesting that interactions and outcomes are seen to be mutually dependent, integrative and co-evolving over time. In other words, if racial disparities already exist in police agency operations and enforcement outcomes related to organizational or structural factors, police applications of FRT threaten to codify and worsen these inequities.
Do you think research such as yours can move the needle on important issues of equity and criminal justice?
The goal of this work is for leaders and citizens to think more clearly about justice decisions. Simply hiring college-educated officers is not a magic bullet. Instead, we must be thoughtful in considering the full spectrum of implications associated with policy changes. I think this paper, along with findings from my other works help shift our thinking about policy decisions or reform decisions. It also helps educate readers on how policy works and the potential unintended consequences of well-intentioned policy and practice. Our work also points out the limitations of the justice system in improving many of the equity and efficiency challenges through agency-level reform efforts.
There are clear connections between education policy and criminal justice. Can you share a bit about how they are interconnected?
I believe education policy and practice in the K-20+ system impacts criminal justice in two broad ways. First, educational attainment serves as a protective factor against crime and delinquency. Second, more educated professionals tend to be more productive than other workers. Other works show that education is associated with moral reasoning development, better problem-solving skills and more progressive attitudes towards marginalized groups.
If this is the case, then what we teach and how we serve our students can have a profound impact on various justice and social outcomes. Do our lesson plans build in social justice lessons and help hone students’ equity lens? Do policies and teacher evaluations focus sharply on test scores or student growth in problem solving and comprehension? These are a few questions highlighting the importance of education policy and practice in the U.S.
What are some of the most important changes that you think need to happen to bring about a more equitable justice system in the U.S.?
Two major things need to happen. First, the justice system is based on winning. Police are judged by metrics like arrests and prosecutors by their win percentage. The emphasis on these outcomes in incentives structures force actors to treat citizens as commodities rather than co-producers of community solutions.
Second, our systems can only be as just as the society in which it operates. If racial disparities and evidence of ‘-isms’ exist at every level of our society — things like healthcare, education, wealth, homeownership, mobility and more — we cannot expect our criminal justice systems to be immune from these forces. Creating a more equitable society and providing equitable opportunities for success in the U.S. is the ultimate intervention needed for a more equitable justice system.