On Thursday, November 21st, probationary Officer Peter Liang shot and killed Akai Gurley in the stairwell of a Brooklyn housing project. A recent FBI Annual Uniform Crime Report determined that killings by police are the highest they’ve been in two decades. In 2013, there were 461 “justifiable homicides” by police which is most likely a significant undercount. In addition, this number would not include a killing such as Akai Gurley which will most likely be classified as “accidental.” The 461 “justifiable homicides” in 2013 doubles the number of people lynched in 1892 when there were 230 lynchings, the highest lynching totals in American history.
As we mourn the death of another person killed at the hands of police officers, we should examine the underlying culture that is responsible for these mass killings. In dealing with culture, one of the most important concepts to understand is something called implicit bias. Below is a definition provided by Kirwan Institute.
Defining Implicit Bias
Also known as implicit social cognition, implicit bias refers to the attitudes or stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions, and decisions in an unconscious manner. These biases, which encompass both favorable and unfavorable assessments, are activated involuntarily and without an individual’s awareness or intentional control. Residing deep in the subconscious, these biases are different from known biases that individuals may choose to conceal for the purposes of social and/or political correctness. Rather, implicit biases are not accessible through introspection.
The implicit associations we harbor in our subconscious cause us to have feelings and attitudes about other people based on characteristics such as race, ethnicity, age, and appearance. These associations develop over the course of a lifetime beginning at a very early age through exposure to direct and indirect messages. In addition to early life experiences, the media and news programming are often-cited origins of implicit associations.
A Few Key Characteristics of Implicit Biases
- Implicit biases are pervasive. Everyone possesses them, even people with avowed commitments to impartiality such as judges.
- Implicit and explicit biases are related but distinct mental constructs. They are not mutually exclusive and may even reinforce each other.
- The implicit associations we hold do not necessarily align with our declared beliefs or even reflect stances we would explicitly endorse.
- We generally tend to hold implicit biases that favor our own ingroup, though research has shown that we can still hold implicit biases against our ingroup.
- Implicit biases are malleable. Our brains are incredibly complex, and the implicit associations that we have formed can be gradually unlearned through a variety of debiasing techniques.
Joshua Correll, a University of Colorado at Boulder Social Psychology professor and his colleagues have studied “shooter bias.” They examined racial bias in decisions to shoot using a videogame simulation of a police encounter. In this simulation, Correll and his colleagues typically find that participants are faster and more likely to shoot Black targets (rather than Whites).
In a somewhat analogous way we can also say that software platforms such as Google and Facebook have “implicit biases.” In a CNN article, Douglas Rushkoff wrote about one of the “implicit biases” of Facebook:
Facebook does not exist to help us make friends, but to turn our network of connections, brand preferences and activities over time — our “social graphs” — into money for others.
And in a Forbes article, Michael Thomsen wrote about the “implicit bias” of Google in regard to diversity:
The lack of diversity at Google has… to do with the company’s core structure, which would remain bluntly antagonistic toward behavioral and political diversity….
[Google’s] PageRank obscures diversity, burying the full and often incoherent spectrum of possible answers to a question inside a nested sequence of mathematical prejudices. Ironically, PageRank worked far better than any other search technology before it, making Google’s business of improving search a matter of cultivating dramatically persuasive prejudices. People wanted answers, not protrusions of debate and uncertainty, and Google made money creating an artificial frame to give it to them.
Do the software platforms used by the New York Police Department (NYPD) have “implicit biases?” Most likely and one software system that is used by the NYPD was developed by a company called Palantir. From 2005 to 2008 the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) was Palantir’s patron and only customer. Palantir also received an early investments of $2 million from the CIA venture capital firm In-Q-Tel.
The NYPD and LAPD both use Palantir’s technology to access data obtain with license plate scanners. Palantir didn’t receive its first commercial customer until 2010 when customers at the New York Police Department referred JPMorgan to Palantir. Palantir’s latest round of funding was worth $107.5 million, which valued the company at $9 billion.
The chairman and co-founder of Palantir is Peter Thiel, a very prominent Silicon Valley venture capitalist. And, even though our modern world is built on the back of government policy, most Silicon Valley-types including Thiel do not acknowledge this legacy. In an essay for CATO Unbound, he wrote:
I no longer believe that freedom and democracy are compatible….
Since 1920, the vast increase in welfare beneficiaries and the extension of the franchise to women — two constituencies that are notoriously tough for libertarians — have rendered the notion of “capitalist democracy” into an oxymoron.
Considering the explicit biases of Peter Thiel, the software platform developed by his company, Palantir, and used by the NYPD is bound to have “implicit biases” that may proved to be potentially very dangerous. Especially if you look like Akai Gurley.
It is interesting to note that in November 2007, at the behest of then LAPD Police Chief William Bratton (the current New York City Police Commissioner), the Los Angles Police Foundation approached Target Corp., which contributed $200,000 to buy the software from Palantir. This is according to the foundation’s executive director, Cecilia Glassman, in an interview. Then the foundation donated the software to the police department.
We should also consider the resignation of Philip Banks III, formerly the NYPD Chief of Department and highest ranking Black in the NYPD. He resigned after being “promoted” to first deputy commissioner. Banks said in a news release, being first deputy commissioner would have been an honor but he felt that position would take him away from actual police work. He also said that he and Bratton tried, but couldn’t agree on the responsibilities.
Update (July 25, 2015): On February 11th, New York City police Officer Peter Liang pleaded not guilty to a six-count indictment in the shooting death of 28-year-old Akai Gurley this past November. The charges against Liang are manslaughter in the second degree, criminally negligent homicide, assault in the second degree, reckless endangerment in the second degree, and two counts of official misconduct.
On June 23rd, Judge Danny K. Chun turned down a request to dismiss the charges against New York City police Officer Peter Liang in the 2014 death of 28-year-old Akai Gurley.
Judge Danny K. Chun said in court Tuesday that he found the evidence in the case “legally sufficient” to proceed to trial, denying a motion made last month from Liang’s attorneys to toss the case from court.
Liang is due back in court on Sept. 29, at which point Chun will set a trial date.
Palantir, in a SEC form dated July 23, 2015, has confirmed that it has raised $450 million at a valuation of $20 million. While not much is publicly disclosed about the nature of Palantir’s work, a leaked document detailed some of the software’s use cases and key clients.
The file revealed the firm’s work in Washington had expanded from eight pilots to over 50 programs by 2009 and by 2013 was used by 12 U.S. government groups, including the CIA, DHS, NSA, FBI, the CDC, the Marine Corps, the Air Force, Special Operations Command, West Point, the Joint IED-defeat organization and Allies, the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.