Sara LaPlante: How NYCLU uses Good Data

October 3, 2013

At our Meetup on Civil Rights on September 24th Sara LaPlante spoke about her work on biased policing in New York as part of the stop-and-frisk tactic of the New York Police Department (NYPD). Her analyses showed, for example, that marijuana possession offenses are the top reason for arrest in the entire stop-and-frisk program. This statistic speaks against the NYPD’s claim that their tactic addresses serious and violent crime. They are stopping thousands more people for a few grams of marijuana than they find guns or weapons.

DataKind Volunteer Friederike Schüür asked her a few questions about her work.

Q: NYCLU employs mainly lawyers. How did you become their first and only data analyst and what is your role within the organisation?

Sara: Issues cannot be won in courts alone and the NYCLU has increasingly recognized that. Our organization has grown to include an advocacy department and positions that tackle civil rights and civil liberties issues with tools beyond litigation. It is home to a handful of organizers with backgrounds in social work, advocates with law degrees and a couple of us with public policy degrees. Of course, NYCLU has a legislative department, too. I would venture to say that even our legal department often uses tools beyond litigation.

My work in the advocacy department hinges on using data-based research and statistical techniques to advance our objectives. I work on many projects but I mainly gather and analyze data that support our advocacy campaigns, for example, our campaign to dismantle bias-based policing practices in New York City. The majority of my time, I deal with databases that contain information about arrests, stop-and-frisks and crime.

Q: How did you get access to these databases? Were they freely available to NYCLU?

Sara: No, we have had trouble getting our data from the NYPD. Initially, the NYPD refused to hand over the databases that I use. We gained access only through litigation. And we have asked for other data from the NYPD since I have come on staff. Usually, we get very little.

Instead, we are forced to turn to other state and city entities that collect data on arrests, stop-and-frisk and crime.

Q: On August 12th 2013, Judge Scheindlin ruled stop and frisk unconstitutional. What are your own views on stop and frisk tactics? Did your views change as a consequence of your analyses?

Sara: Stop-and-frisk aside, people of color routinely face harassment by the police, which has been a civil rights issue for decades. Many folks have shared their stories of harassment and it is important to note that no amount of data can prove or disprove a person’s story.

While data are important, we would live in a sad world if we valued data over countless personal stories of bias, violence, and harassment faced by New Yorkers at the hands of the police.

My hope is that data can help to highlight the immensity of the problem. It is impossible to capture the voices of 168,126 people in one story but we can use data to tell us that this many young black men were stopped on New York City streets in 2011. And there are only 158,406 your black men that live in New York City!

Q: Your mainly work with people who do not have a quantitative background. How do you communicate your findings? Have you ever had problems establishing a common language?

Sara: The people I work with may not have a quantitative background but as long as there is no technical jargon they’re pretty adept at understanding “all things data”. The toughest thing I face is trying to explain why we need to adhere to strict statistical standards. Data are not always robust enough to speak on all issues. At the same time, advocates like using data because that is what the public wants to hear and what political figures want to see. I need to explain why we can draw certain conclusions, based on our data and the statistics we (can) use, and why our data cannot support others. It is important to keep in mind, however, that one does not always need data. The stories we hear from the people we talk to sketch powerful pictures of what it is like on New York City Street, for example, as a young black male.

Q: What did you do on August 12th 2013?

Sara: On that day, the Floyd et al. v. the City of New York trial was decided and Judge Scheindlin rules stop-and-frisk unconstitutional. For me, it was a regular day in the office, since not too much happened on the data end of things. We had a debrief of the findings and that was that. August 22nd was a bigger day for our office. On that day, Mayor Bloomberg’s veto of the Community Safety Act (CSA) was overturned in the New York City Council. The CSA will help curb biased-based policing. It was powerful to hear stories from council members who were stopped or whose families faced harassment and especially, to watch the council push back on the mayor and make a clear statement that this city wants to do better for communities facing heavy harassment by the NYPD.

Q: Do you have any recommendations for the NYPD on how they should reform their tactics based on your analyses?

Sara: For a list of formal recommendations, you may want to ask our executive director Donna Lieberman. What I would like to see from the NYPD is recognition and compassion.

I have heard Ray Kelly (the New York City Police Commissioner) and others in the NYPD defend biased policing tactics. I have heard them complain about unfair trials. I have yet to hear the NYPD say, "We recognize that our choices in policing have hurt many of you. We would like to change that while we keep this city safe. Let’s work together."

This interview has been condensed and edited by Friederike Schüür.

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Sara LaPlante is a data and policy analyst at the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU), an organization founded in 1951 with the mission to defend and promote fundamental principles and values embodied in the Bill of Rights and the US and New York Constitution, including freedom of speech and religion and the right to privacy, equality and due process of law.

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.