Improving the criminal justice system through human-centered design

By Shasha Du

As an Asian-American woman who grew up in a middle-class suburb in Silicon Valley, I’ve admittedly had very few experiences interacting with police in my life. When the Black Lives Matter movement began in 2013, propelling issues of police violence and race into the national spotlight, I experienced it as a bystander; though I’ve heard and read about instances of police brutality against African-Americans and other people of color, none of my friends or family members have ever been victims. However, it’s a very different story for my African-American peers (regardless of socioeconomic status), for whom racial profiling by law enforcement is a common occurrence and a daily conversation.

Protests against the police in Ferguson, Missouri. Source: The Atlantic

Why does our experience with law enforcement vary so much based on race? As a Product Designer for My90, a startup that aims to improve the criminal justice system through data and community-centered design, I recently sat down with two very different groups of people to discuss their experiences interacting with the local police. In the first focus group, which was composed of an older demographic of small business owners, most of whom were Caucasian, the police were described to be “trustworthy, swift, and caring.”

In the second focus group, which consisted of young people of color, the police were described to be “intimidating, liars, and murderers.” While the first group felt like the police were protecting them, the second group felt like the police were victimizing them and their communities. One of the participants of the second focus group was a social worker whose clients often needed help from the police, but due to frequently negative interactions with them, were hesitant to call 911. These strikingly different conversations shed light on the fact that the system seems to be working for one portion of the population while working against another.

My90 focus group with young people of color

As a social impact designer, I can’t help but think of the ways in which the criminal justice system more broadly and law enforcement more specifically fall short of being human-centered. IDEO defines human-centered design as “a process that starts with the people you’re designing for and ends with new solutions that are tailor made to suit their needs.” If that’s the case, the system seems to have been designed to only benefit a segment of the population.

In an article called Why big-data analysis of police activity is inherently biased, the authors state that “Neighborhoods with lots of police calls aren’t necessarily the same places the most crime is happening. They are, rather, where the most police attention is — though where that attention focuses can often be biased by gender and racial factors.” As part of my research, I participated in a ride-along with a seasoned police officer, who told me that 911 calls are typically only from 10% of the population, and that it tends to be the same people who call in day after day. If policing strategy is primarily based on crime data from 911 calls made by only 10% of the population, it’s no wonder that the police aren’t serving people in an equitable way.

The fact that the police aren’t living up to their mission of protecting and improving the quality of life of all people isn’t taken lightly by leaders in law enforcement. Forward-thinking law enforcement agencies across the country are actively looking for ways to engage communities that they don’t hear from; after all, how can the police protect people who don’t trust them? A former Chief of Police I interviewed in February 2018 said that community engagement was the biggest part of his job; he spent countless hours a week meeting with community organizations to listen to their needs and concerns; however, when it came to crime strategy meetings, community data was a black hole. Agencies simply don’t have any data on community needs and concerns to inform decision making. Methods that agencies currently use to engage the community more broadly — Twitter, Facebook, Nextdoor, in-person events like Town Halls — merely “preach to the choir” in that they reach the same audiences who are most likely to dial 911.

San Jose Assistant Chief of Police, Dave Knopf, greets people at a community event. Source: The Mercury News

The reason people of color don’t respond to law enforcement’s community engagement efforts can be boiled down to two relentless human emotions: fear and indifference. People fear retribution from the police, and it’s not difficult to understand why when you take a look at the stats. According to Mapping Police Violence, in 2015 99% of police brutality cases (of which black people are 3x as likely to be victims compared to white people) did not result in a conviction. Indeed, why would a person of color provide critical feedback to the police if there’s a chance they could be targeted with no oversight?

Additionally, people are indifferent towards engaging in a dialogue with law enforcement because they don’t believe it will lead to change. Most police departments don’t respond to comments, especially critical ones, on social media. Other ways to provide more direct feedback to the police — completing a paper form, emailing the police department, or stopping by the agency in person — aren’t popular in a world in which we can write a review on Yelp using our smartphones and chat with customer service through instant message. Law enforcement agencies, where “customer service is a foreign concept” (in the words of the same aforementioned Police Chief) aren’t good at receiving or responding to feedback from the communities they serve.

In order to break down the barriers that prevent people from giving honest and critical feedback to the police — fear, indifference, and inaccessibility — My90 has worked with agencies across the nation to pilot anonymous text messaging as a way to collect community data. Community members are asked not only for general feedback towards the police, but also about specific interactions they might have had with officers. Community research indicates that text messaging is the most popular form of communication (compared to a phone conversation, email, or web survey) due to how accessible and convenient it is (even people without smartphones, about 25% of the population, can access SMS). People of color in particular appreciate that the content of their messages are anonymous, and that they are communicating through a third party and not directly with the police.

San Jose community members text My90 with candid feedback about their local police

After sending feedback to My90, community members receive follow-up messages about whether the police department has viewed their feedback in addition to resources that may address their concerns. In the words of one focus group member of color, this could be the start of “a conversation,” something that had never before been possible. I’ve also begun user testing on a public dashboard, where people can view data on other people’s interactions with law enforcement. Contrary to the indifference one might expect, community members of color were excited by the idea. One focus group participant said that it would enable her to see whether others have had similar experiences, recalling the power and momentum that shared experience generated in the #metoo movement.

Recent My90 focus group with young activists in East Palo Alto

By quantifying public engagement and trust, police agencies are able to utilize customer satisfaction as a metric in their work for the first time. Agencies see anonymous text messaging as a tool not only for taking the pulse of their community, but for gauging public sentiment on specific issues such as drone use, making decisions about which projects to fund, and evaluating the impact of particular programming. Through engaging communities in a dialogue, law enforcement can work with residents to identify problems and collaborate on implementing meaningful solutions.

Since SMS conversations ask community members for demographic information, that also means that for the first time, the public will be able to track and compare the demographics of people who call the police versus people whom the police initiate contact with. Over time, this can become an important metric for ensuring that people have more equitable experiences with the police. Ultimately, by amplifying people’s voices about their interactions with law enforcement, we hope to add a layer of transparency and accountability to the criminal justice system while making it more inclusive for all.

Shasha Du is a human-centered designer on a mission to uncover user needs and solve complex problems through human-centered design. With a BA in International Development Studies from UCLA and a Master of Education from the Technology, Innovation, and Education program at Harvard, Shasha believes in harnessing technology and design for social impact.