Brett Stoudt: Stop and Frisk and the Importance of Good Data Collection

October 3, 2013

At our Meetup on Civil Rights on September 24th 2013, Dr Brett Stoudt talked about his research into the impact of policing, in particular the stop-and-frisk tactic employed by the New York Police Department (NYPD), on a neighborhood in the South Bronx.

We talk a lot about data science in the service of humanity. Brett demonstrated how data collection can be done in a more humanitarian way.

DataKind Volunteer Friederike Schüür asked Brett a few questions about his work:

Q: You are a professor and yet, you walk the streets in the South Bronx as part of the Morris Justice Project, which was born out of the passion of neighborhood mothers outraged at the NYPD's treatment of their sons. Are you an academic or activist?

Brett: I am a participatory action researcher (PAR). PAR researchers believe the distinction between academic and activist is a false dichotomy. There is a long history of scholar-activists like Kurt Lewin, W.E.B Du Bois, Ignacio Martin-Baro, Paulo Freire to name a few. Scholar-activists are committed to producing strong scholarship while grounding their activism in carefully produced and analyzed data.

Q: Could you explain the principles of PAR?

Brett: PAR describes a particular method used within social science research. At the same time – and perhaps most importantly – it is an epistemological and ethical stance on where knowledge lies, how it is produced, who it should be produced with and how it should be used. PAR researchers believe that expertise is not only concentrated in universities but instead distributed widely, particularly among those most affected by the topic of inquiry. As a consequence, PAR researchers believe that the quality of research is maximized though a democratic, inclusive process with individuals that have access to different information and a diverse set skills, experiences and values. PAR researchers feel committed to produce research that can unveil and possibly combat injustices with those most affected.

Traditionally, PAR has been associated with qualitative methodologies and analyses. I often use quantitative methods and analyses and I label my work as “quantitative PAR” to highlight this difference. I furthermore strive to demystify quantitative approaches. Statistical work can seem exclusionary, even magical, to those who do not share quantitative skills. I use “quantitative PAR” to signify that quantitative methods and approaches can be participatory throughout the entire research process.

Q: In the more “mainstream” approaches to research, science, and statistics, one often takes a small sample of a population, conducts a study and then claims that any findings based on this sample generalize to the entire population.

As part of the Morris Justice Project, you interviewed a sample of the population of the area in the South Bronx you studied. I assume you will want to claim that your findings generalize to the entire population of that area. How about other areas in and perhaps even outside New York City?

Brett: PAR researchers are most interested in staying contextually and historically grounded. We collected responses from South Bronx residents in a 42-block area near Yankee Stadium. Using mostly non-random strategies, we carefully sampled these 42-blocks and believe our data can speak with some accuracy to the experiences and attitudes of this neighborhood. Our strongest claim and our greatest interest is to understand the 1,030 people who took our survey.

Our ability to claim generalizability (or external validity, to be precise) in the statistical-inferential sense, cannot go beyond those blocks. In general, PAR researchers are less interested in external validity and more interested in what Lincoln and Guba called transferability. For more than a decade – qualitatively and quantitatively, from academics to community organizations – research has revealed a great deal of overlap in what people in NYC neighborhoods and especially in communities or color experience and feel when zero-tolerance policing policies are imposed. It is this transferability from our 1,030 respondents to different respondents from other studies across NYC communities that we find compelling, while we still honor and explore the differing contextual realities from which the data were collected. We compare our data to previously collected “stop-and-frisk” stories and data and such comparison can reveal some level of shared experience, attitude and solidarity across many similarly situated neighborhoods in NYC.

Q: PAR emphasizes the active role of researchers involved in a project. To what extent could researchers' biases influence both social change and knowledge?

Brett: PAR researchers do not believe social science can be value-free. In fact, we believe that research that strives for or claims objectivity is vulnerable to reproducing values that reflect or benefit those in power or hold privilege. 

Instead, PAR researchers practice what Sandra Harding calls strong objectivity; we examine the ways that knowledge is historically situated and produced and we reflect carefully on how our lives (e.g., our experiences, values, biases, assumptions) may determine what we ask, what we see and what we say.  In practice, we think and talk about our values and assumptions as part of the research process and we build diverse research teams with multiple standpoints, experiences, skills and expertise. We furthermore seek opportunities outside our research team to hold our instruments, data, and interpretations accountable (e.g. advisory groups), and in our analyses we intentionally seek counter-stories, outliers and pieces of data that do not match our assumptions and overall conclusions.

Q: If a diverse research team helps to reduce biases, shouldn’t you have worked in close collaboration with the NYPD as well as the local community to improve the impact of policing? 

Brett: PAR researchers give great consideration to the power relationships and group dynamics of the research team in order to provide safe spaces for rich discussion. To use education research as an example, sometimes it makes sense to create a research team with students and teachers while other times the presence of faculty within the power hierarchy of a school makes it very difficult for students to feel comfortable genuinely participating – there is too much at stake (e.g. fear of hurting reputation, getting in trouble, saying something that might effect one’s grades).

Community-police relationships are complex and hierarchical. The purpose of Morris Justice Project was to study community attitudes and experiences with police (not vice versa) and therefore including active police officers would have greatly changed the group relationships and we think in ways that would have lowered the quality of our work. However, that does not mean members of the Morris Justice Project were necessarily hostile to police or unsympathetic to their job. Some on the team were employed as prison security guards; the overall desire was for different policing in the neighborhood not less policing and overall, the team was in favor of reaching out to police.

We have sought the police for discussion in various ways - thus far with no success. The NYPD has a reputation of being insular and now more so in this politically heated moment given the legislation, the lawsuits and mayoral race all highlighting police practices. Nevertheless, one of our goals over the next several months is to strategize other ways we might be able to sit downwith representatives of the NYPD.

Q: Stop and frisk is a practice by the NYPD intended to reduce crime. Any community should benefit from reduced crime rates but there are many complaints about stop and frisk. What do you think is the biggest problem of stop and frisk?

Brett: All communities benefit from lower crime rates. There are many factors that combine to decrease crime rates and policing practices are only part of the solution. There is no credible research thus far that has been able to demonstrate a relationship between the decline in crime in NYC and the increasing use of stop and frisk by the NYPD. There are however, many studies and now several lawsuits that have demonstrated that stop and frisk has too frequently been racially biased, unconstitutionally practiced and ineffective at uncovering weapons or other crimes. At the same time, it compromises community-police relationships and has a whole set of unintended consequences in particular for communities of color (whether stopped by police or not). Communities like the South Bronx deserve effective policing that is fair and just.

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Dr. Brett Stoudt is an assistant professor at the psychology department of the City University of New York (CUNY) with a joint appointment in the gender studies program at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

Friederike Schüür is a post doc at New York University studying the intricacies of human decision making behavior. She is interested in the good, the bad, and the ugly choices that we make day in and day out and why we make them.