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The Research Behind the Black Lives Matter Policy Demands

Nearly all of the demands have been studied, to some extent.
(Photo: Rena Schild/Shutterstock)

(Photo: Rena Schild/Shutterstock)

Last week, several Black Lives Matter-affiliated activists published their demands for police reform on a website called Campaign Zero. The publication follows protests staged during rallies for United States presidential candidates Jeb Bush, Hillary Clinton, and Bernie Sanders, where activists have been asking the political hopefuls to address racial disparities in the American criminal justice system.

Whether any of the candidates will adopt parts of Campaign Zero's platform remains to be seen. The research generally suggests Campaign Zero's demands are reasonable, though some of the campaign's demands naturally have more evidence to back them than others. That's no fault of the protestors; there hasn't been time and opportunity for researchers to thoroughly study every demand.

Below are some highlights, which give a sense of the scope of research available to back Campaign Zero's demands:

  • Campaign Zero calls for an end to "broken windows" policing, which harshly penalizes residents of high-crime neighborhoods for relatively minor offenses, such as sleeping outdoors or panhandling. The idea is that by removing these signs of minor crime, police discourage people from committing more serious offenses. But the policy ends up disproportionately affecting people of color, who are more likely to live in higher-crime neighborhoods, Campaign Zero argues.

    The research on the tactic's effectiveness is inconclusive. While crime in many cities did precipitously drop once officers began broken-window policing, other, concurrent trends might actually be the cause. In New York City, for example, broken-windows policing occurred at the same time the economy improved and unemployment fell. Some research suggests broken windows and other small signs of crime both arise from the same underlying problems, so changing one doesn't change the other.

  • Campaign Zero calls for police departments to recruit more officers of color to better reflect the racial make-up of the communities they serve. As Lauren Kirchner reported, while a more diverse police force could reduce an "us-versus-them mentality that is unproductive," diversity isn't enough. And although studies of some neighborhoods have found white officers are more likely to shoot than black officers, in other neighborhoods, the reverse has been found to be true. It may be that "regardless of who is carrying out the police function, police will always be seen as representatives of the larger establishment," Wayne State University researcher Ben Smith wrote in 2003.

  • While acknowledging "they are not a cure-all," Campaign Zero wants to require police to wear body cameras. There's promising evidence showing that body cameras reduce how much time it takes to determine whether an officer or civilian acted badly during a contentious encounter. Camera evidence has also been crucial in challenging official police reports in recent cases of alleged over-use of police force, such as in the death of Samuel DuBose. But, as some of the most prominent body-camera researchers wrote in December 2014, from a scientist's point of view, the evidence is still preliminary and many questions remain about the long-term effects of recording every police encounter.

For any policymaker interested in reducing police violence, Campaign Zero's demands are a great roadmap to changes they might consider. If they're looking to prioritize, a look at the strength of the research behind the demands—all of which have been studied, to some extent—will help.