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Brackney discusses need for data in improving equitable policing

You can’t have equity without data. That was the message Tuesday in a forum between Charlottesville Chief of Police and equity researchers as the city strives to police more fairly.

Charlottesville Chief of Police RaShall Brackney emphasized the importance of data analysis in changing the city’s policing during a joint forum Tuesday with the Center for Policing Equity.

The virtual event featured Brackney in conversation with Tracie L. Keesee, a veteran of the Denver Police Department and co-founder of the Center for Policing Equity, a research center analyzes police data to determine disparities.

Over the course of an hour and a half, Brackney and Keesee discussed police accountability, the role of data, transparency and community calls for accessible and complete data.

According to Keesee, the Center for Policing Equity — or CPE — was founded more than a decade ago with the goal of using science and data to address race in policing by changing situations through data and the stories it can tell rather than perspectives through stories alone. The research center partners with community police departments to analyze their data and determine where disparities in policing exist in order to help effect change.

According to Keesee, CPE does not charge for the work it does because it do not want to be put in a position where the accuracy of the data is called into question.

“We were all raised in some kind of way, we were raised to believe things and it’s difficult to try to undo those things that are very salient to you,” Keesee said. “Whether you’re told by your mother or in your church by friends, those views are very difficult to impact. But when you can change the situation with the use of science, changing becomes something that’s very doable.”

Brackney echoed a similar sentiment and emphasized the importance of data in corroborating lived experiences. People of color, and Black people in particular, don’t need data to validate their experiences, Brackney said, but data and science are needed to move systems in western cultures.

“Typically, we’ve not collected data in a way that validates, authenticates or gives value to those voices of lived experiences,” Brackney said. “The way CPE has asked us to collect our data and to turn that over will then allow us to see in a very real way the story that we may not have been able to weave together but with just one person telling us.”

Since assuming her position in 2018, Brackney said she has been working to remodel the city police department into a department that emphasizes trust and transparency.

These efforts have been met with pushback from some members of the city police department, including representatives of the Central Virginia Chapter of the Virginia Police Benevolent Association, who recently released the results of an internal survey expressing frustration with leadership. An unsigned letter released by the city criticized the survey and expounded on Brackney’s efforts, including a paragraph about ongoing cooperation with CPE.

“The purpose was to empirically determine the potentiality for disparate impact under CPD’s current approach to policing, and to co-create a more just and fair system of public safety in Charlottesville,” the letter read.

In order to facilitate CPE’s efforts and other data-based efforts, Brackney said that significant amounts of information need to be collected. She said the reason for this doesn’t always permeate to all levels of the department. For example, Brackney said that when she became chief she received a lot of questions about stop-and frisk-data and came to realize that the city police department had not been collecting data.

“How do you create policies that you can then justly implement without data?” she said. “I didn’t have a complete picture of anything, nothing.”

Keesee said, generally, that she believes cops are not fans of data and science, which is something CPE is working to help change.

“We’ve come a long way when it comes to talking about data, and evidence-based policy, but still when we talk about all those things we have large groups of folks who don’t understand it,” Keesee said. “Where I hear you, Chief, is how do you get that message and conversation pushed down to the ground? Because this is the same conversation we’re having in regards to outcomes that we see throughout the country.”

Keesee said CPE is currently working on a report for the city police department, analyzing the available data in an attempt to determine what steps or changes can be made to better serve the community. The work of shifting culture internally in a police department while also facing external pressure is complicated, she said, but needs to be centered on the community’s needs. The city police currently publish a wealth of data online, including data related to arrests, crime statistics and investigative detentions, a.k.a. stop-and-frisks.

Brackney said the city police is giving all the raw data it has so CPE can tell the department its story and where it needs to improve.

“What I’m asking of this community is to keep asking questions you want answers to,” she said. “If we don’t have the answers personally then we’ll make sure to connect with the experts at CPE to make sure we get them answered in a real and meaningful way.”


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