Earlier this month, two young Black men died shortly after encounters with police: On Jan. 3, Keenan Anderson died after members of the Los Angeles Police Department stopped, restrained, and tasered him multiple times. On Jan. 10, Tyre Nichols died from his injuries three days after Memphis police officers beat, pepper-sprayed, and tased him.
There’s a fact about these two tragedies that distinguish them from many prior policing deaths: Nonwhite officers were involved in Anderson’s death. And all five involved in Tyre Nichols’ killing are Black. Those five officers were all charged with murder this week.
In the latest episode of A Word, host Jason Johnson speaks to Phillip Ateba Goff, an African American studies and psychology professor at Yale who also co-founded the Center for Policing Equity, about the psychology and politics of fighting police violence, and how much changing the demographics of the police force actually matters. Below is an excerpt from the conversation; it has been edited for length and clarity.
Jason Johnson: Tyre Nichols and Keenan Anderson were both killed by police in the opening weeks of 2023—and despite the so-called racial reckoning, police killings actually rose in 2022, with Black Americans suffering disproportionately.
One of the things that people always talk about is, like, “Hey, we need more police officers who are similar in race and culture to the people they’re policing. We need them to be from the neighborhoods.” But we’ve seen in these situations there were officers of color involved in Anderson’s death. All five of the Tennessee officers involved in killing Tyre Nichols are Black. So is diversifying police really going to do anything about this issue of police violence?
Phillip Ateba Goff: So will it do anything is a different question than is that where we should focus? To the degree that there is a debate between reform and abolition on policing or the carceral state or anything else, it is in my mind the original Black political debate, which is: Do we make something better—do we make this system we’ve got better for ourselves and stop catching hell tomorrow? Or do we say that’s not going to be sufficient and we need to tear it all down and build something entirely different up? And if you look at the history of those conversations, I mean, there’s points to be made on both sides of the conversation, but usually the most radical progress for Black communities has happened when those two things are held in creative tension. It’s not the case that the only way that you can envision a world where we don’t have systems of punishment and we only have systems of care, is that you do nothing about the system tomorrow, right? And Black folks catching hell will tell you, “Yeah, I’d like to have a system where it’s massively better and it wasn’t set up as a sort of an analog to slavery. Also, please stop beating my ass.”
So when you ask the question, will it do anything, I have changed my mind on this. So I used to say out loud for lots of people to hear, “Getting my ass beat by someone who’s Black versus getting my ass beat by someone who’s white, I still got beat. It hurts the same.” I have also said it is politically different if the entire force looks white and it’s an occupying force in a Black community. But more recent research demonstrated that in Chicago, with the best data that we’ve ever had, that you see a massive difference between white male and Black officers, white male and white women officers—and I had never seen evidence that was remotely convincing that the demographics of the officers would make a difference, but the white women had a vastly lower use of force rates, because they weren’t beating Black people. They were not using force against Black people.
And that was, I got to say, a little bit shocking to me to see it in such stark relief, and it’s really strong data. That doesn’t say to me that in every city it’s like that, because if you’ve ever been to Chicago, Chicago is a different kind of city. But it says to me that it’s possible that that’s the ceiling, the most difference the demographics could make. But they made an enormous difference.
And so it was not intuitive to me that that would be a thing. It is absolutely not the thing that I would suggest, that we have to make that our No. 1 priority, but I no longer scoff at that as a potential way to mitigate some of the terrible harms that we see. I would only say in every city where I have worked, it is the fact of the police and not the kind of the police that is the biggest lever for reducing the state-sponsored violence. And I take that from working with the police in many of those cities and the police saying, “If you send us there, we have a limited number of tools and we’re going to use them, so if you don’t want these outcomes, stop sending us.”
Johnson: You got a Black woman who’s the head of the police department in Memphis. We now have a Black woman, Karen Bass, who is now the mayor of Los Angeles. Many people believe that having these Black mayors can actually have an impact on how some of these police departments are operating. Is there any evidence for that? Is there any evidence for Black mayors either reining in these departments, holding them accountable? Where’s the data pointing as far as these Black mayors and policing in cities?
Goff: I can tell you, we don’t know a whole heck of a lot about the Black mayors. We know a little bit about Black chiefs of police, which is kind of a similar question, and it has always been the case that when you put Black people in charge of oppressive systems, that the systems change less than the people in charge of them do, right? There is some evidence in peer-reviewed journals that I would trust that says when you put a Black person in charge of a police department, you get more accountability. So more sustained complaints, you see a lower rate of arrest and a lower use of force, but these are marginal effects. And the question shouldn’t be, is this a thing that could have any impact, but: Is this where we should put our resources?
It’s fine to say we want more representative policing. I think in general that’s going to be good. It’s definitely OK to say we want a more representative democracy. When I started doing this work, there were two to three Black chiefs at what are called the Major Cities Chiefs Association, which is just the largest municipal law enforcement agencies across the United States. And now, it’s majority Black, majority Black. And that’s not that long a time in the history of things; 15-some odd years that clearly hasn’t solved the problem. It’s not the majority of cities that’s like, “Nah, racism’s not a thing anymore.” So it’s definitely not going to be the whole package. And I would make the argument that demographics and personnel are a relatively smaller portion of the problem than [the fact that] we’ve decided to give up on whole swaths of communities. We’ve not invested in the resources they need to keep themselves safe, and instead of giving them those resources so they’re not in crisis, we quote-unquote, “solve” crises by sending people whose job it is to decide whether or not you continue to breathe or live outside of a cage.
That’s an insane way to try and solve problems that we have made choices about as policies. We told those communities: Here are the problems we’re willing to let you have and now we’re going to punish you if you happen to fall into it. That is a much bigger lever on fixing those problems than changing the demographics of the people who are in charge of the system.
Listen to the entire episode here: