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The NYPD gave officers iPhones. Here’s what we learned about race and policing.

Monday, June 3, 2024

While a growing number of studies have indicated persistent patterns of racial discrimination in policing, the data these papers rely on often come from officers’ self-reports of their own behavior. That means the data could be biased, a concern that led University of Minnesota Carlson School of Management Assistant Professor Jeremy Watson and two colleagues to look into the impact of digital technology.

Jeremy Watson
Assistant Professor Jeremy Watson

Tracking data on New York City Police Department stops and complaints in 2017 and 2018—the period when iPhones were being rolled out across precincts in New York City—the researchers found an 18 percent increase in reported stops overall as well as a 22 percent increase of stops involving non-White citizens.

“On the whole, our study raises the possibility that race-based disparities in policing may have been underestimated thus far because of reporting gaps,” explained Watson, who worked with Brad Greenwood, professor of information systems and operations management at the Donald G. Costello College of Business at George Mason University and Gordon Burtch, professor of information systems at the Questrom School of Business at Boston University.

The trio’s paper, forthcoming in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, examined the recent rollout of iPhones across the NYPD, which included a series of digital tools designed to replace the handwritten memo books officers previously relied on. Instead of scribbling in the physical books, which NYPD officers were required to hang onto even into retirement, officers could log their activities directly into a centralized database maintained by the NYPD. These detailed digital records shed fresh light on how cops spend their time—and attention—on the beat.

A curious pattern

There was an 18 percent increase in reported stops after a precinct received iPhones, which would be consistent with the digital tools making it easier for officers to report a citizen interaction. Further, the researchers discovered that this increase resulted in neither more arrests nor more complaints from the public. It wasn’t, therefore, that the phones were somehow causing the police to stop people more often, but rather that so-called “unproductive stops”—those leading to no further action—were being reported more often.

Person using smartphone

However, when breaking down the results across White and non-White citizens, the researchers found that unproductive stops involving non-White citizens were entirely responsible for the increase. In other words, the observed changes were based on police encounters with non-White members of the public, that would likely have gone unreported in the days of pen and paper. More specifically, after switching to the smartphone system, officers logged 22 percent more stops involving non-White citizens, while the number of reported stops of White citizens remained unchanged. These are statistical averages—the pattern was more marked in high-crime neighborhoods and those with a greater proportion of non-White residents.

Greenwood, of George Mason University, offered an interpretation of the finding: “The concern here is that we have an underreporting which is concentrated in certain groups, which means that we need to be cautious when interpreting prior work. On the one hand, it opens the door to bias in police interactions with civilians being worse than initially anticipated, at least based on the frequency of stops. On the other hand, it could mean that older data doesn’t accurately reflect the likelihood of an arrest once a stop occurs. And we need to be doubly cautious, because we don’t know if officers are reporting stops more frequently just because it is easier, or for some other reason.”

No sweeping conclusions

The authors strongly caution against making sweeping conclusions based on the study. “The only thing we know for sure is that more and deeper work is needed by scholars and policymakers to ensure transparency between law enforcement and the people they are charged to protect,” said Greenwood, who also documented in a 2022 paper how the introduction of body-worn cameras for the NYPD resulted in a significant reduction in abuse-of-authority complaints.

As police officers are not obligated to document all civilian interactions, their decisions regarding what (and what not) to report can be biased. The introduction of new technology, as in the case of the NYPD, can help counter such biases, but is not the only avenue worth pursuing. The researchers recommend that police departments “investigate the appropriate organizational complements (i.e. policies and procedures) necessary to uncover and eliminate such biases.”