March 23, 2023

NPR’s Ari Shapiro talks with Phillip Goff of the Center for Policing Equity about how the death of Tyre Nichols in Memphis speaks to larger issues with police department culture and diversity.


In Memphis, Tenn., people are calling for police reform after the killing of Tyre Nichols. Five former officers have been charged with murder. This cycle of violence and calls for change is familiar by now, so what can actually be done to reduce police violence?

That’s a question that Phillip Atiba Goff has studied. He’s CEO of the Center for Policing Equity, chair of African American Studies and psychology professor at Yale University. Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

PHILLIP ATIBA GOFF: Thanks for having me.

SHAPIRO: There’s a widespread belief that if you have a police force that looks like the population of a community, that will reduce violence. In this instance, the five former officers charged with murder are all Black. So was the victim. And so what does the research say? Does diversity make a difference in police violence?

GOFF: So prior to 2021, I would have said that there’s not strong evidence one way or the other. And my mind got changed by a piece of science by Bocar Ba that looked at data in Chicago that were just stronger data than any other place that we’ve had – did an apples-to-apples comparison and showed that Black officers and women officers of any race were far less likely to use force than were white male officers. That tells me that there is some benefit that’s possible in diversifying police. But I want to be really clear – it is not the No. 1 suggestion, the No. 2, the No. 3. It doesn’t rate in the top 10 of things that I would tell a police department to do.

SHAPIRO: I’m not going to ask you to go through every number of the top 10 list, but what’s the No. 1 recommendation?

GOFF: Use police for less.

SHAPIRO: Well, does that mean police are inherently going to be violent no matter what, and the only way to reduce violence is to reduce the presence of police?

GOFF: Well, there are a number of people who would say yes to that, but I don’t think you need to answer that question with an affirmative to understand this – if my problem is I’m considering suicide, why is it that, in so many communities, the only person who can show up is someone with a badge and a gun, at best 8 hours of training in mental health emergencies and whose decisions are, I’m going to maybe lock this person up; I’m going to maybe restrain this person; I might have to use force on this person if I feel threatened? That does not seem like the best solution to it. Better yet, someone whose major problem is that they live outdoors because they don’t have a home – why are we sending badges and guns to respond to that? I would think that the problem with being unhoused is housing, and possibly, you know, substance abuse and mental health issues because they so often co-occur.

SHAPIRO: So recommendation No. 1 is use police less. Are there recommendations for how to use police in ways that are not likely to result in violence?

GOFF: Give police more tools so that, when they are not the right tool, they can lean on them. So for instance, I would tell you, if someone’s in a mental health crisis, send a social worker. Send a mental health professional.

SHAPIRO: In the specific instance of Tyre Nichols, he’s stopped for a traffic violation, allegedly. What could have gone differently there?

GOFF: I’ll tell you that, in Ithaca – in Tompkins County, N.Y., in Saint Louis, Mo., in Berkeley, Calif., we’re very happy to have encouraged local leaders to end low-level traffic enforcement by law enforcement and to stop sending police when there’s a nonfatal accident. It turns out, when you do that, you can just send the ticket via mail. Not introducing a badge and a gun to those situations does not mean we cannot enforce the rules. It does not mean that we’re going to see more traffic accidents. And in fact, it’s going to inspire more trust in those same systems ’cause they’re going to end with fewer unnecessary deadly elements.

SHAPIRO: Do you think police in this country are getting better despite these horrific high-profile acts of violence that we see every few years or so?

GOFF: So you asked a tricky question because I think it depends on what your definition of policing is and your definition of better. I have seen departments professionalize and drive down racial disparities, and I have seen that the number of folks who police kill has stayed constant for the seven years, eight years that we’ve been collecting the data publicly and for my 15 years of doing the analysis.

Policing is set up to do a set of things. It does that with ruthless efficiency. It is not set up ideally for community safety because, to do that, you need to do investment. And so there are people who would say policing hasn’t gotten better, but it hasn’t gotten worse because it continues to do those things efficiently. And in there, I talk about both activists and the chiefs with whom I work.

SHAPIRO: When you talk to police chiefs about the steps that have been shown to improve outcomes for communities and reduce violence, do they generally endorse the ideas that you’re describing? Do they push back? What kind of reaction do you get?

GOFF: There are very few major city police chiefs who should be taken seriously who won’t tell you that we have failed to invest in certain communities, and those are the communities that they get called to. And they get blamed for what they do. And no one is, at the same time, blaming the corporations or the white flight or the banking investment in any of that. While it’s fair for law enforcement to be held accountable for what they’re doing, it is incredibly shortsighted of us to think that fixing law enforcement prevents the death. Because, as much as there is incredible violence from policing and incredible violence within these communities, all of that is within the context of the violence of poverty and deprivation, and those are policy choices usually made by people who never have to see that violence up close.

SHAPIRO: Phillip Atiba Goff is the CEO of the Center for Policing Equity, chair of African American Studies and professor of psychology at Yale University. Thank you so much.

GOFF: Thanks, Ari. Take care.

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