Race, Policing, and the Effects of the Garner Decision

Phillip A. Goff
Professor Phillip A. Goff

The Department of Justice’s decision not to pursue criminal civil rights charges against the New York Police Department officer in the death of Eric Garner has drawn strong reactions. We invited Criminal Justice Professor Phillip A. Goff (Graduate Center/John Jay College) to weigh in on the news.

Goff is a social psychologist and a leading scholar on the topics of policing and race and the consequences of implicit bias. He is also the co-founder and president of the Center for Policing Equity (CPE), a research and advocacy organization based in New York.

The Graduate Center: What are the big takeaways from the Justice Department’s decision not to bring federal charges against the police officer in the Eric Garner case.

Goff: The biggest takeaway is something we already knew: This administration is not interested in protecting the civil rights of the most vulnerable. That said, the federal bar for civil rights is so high that even the most committed justice advocates often have a hard time meeting the standard. No one should be surprised by the outcome, but the problem is not just the people in charge, it’s the way our laws fail to protect the most vulnerable among us.

GC: Has the Eric Garner case and the handling of it affected your work at the Center for Policing Equity? Will this decision affect your work?

Goff: In the summer of 2014, millions of people around the United States woke up to the reality of historical conflict between police and non-white communities. But as time has moved forward and attentions waned, the energy that seemed for a time like it would fuel nationwide reform has dwindled to a sad and paralyzed curiosity for too many. The decision will not affect our work. But the lack of response to it already has.

GC: Based on your research about police officers and stereotypes, how is the Justice Department’s decision and the reaction to it likely to affect law enforcement officers?

Goff: The narrative around police use of force is already baked. It is unlikely that this decision will radically change anyone’s mind about what is happening in the U.S.

GC: Are minorities in New York safer than they were five years ago?

Goff: In many ways, yes. Research reveals that stop, question, and frisk is down, crime is down, and trust in NYPD is up. But in another way, we still do not know. Until we measure the consequences of negative police contact, we will not be able to tell whether or not those consequences are improving.

Submitted on: JUL 18, 2019

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