A few months ago, I was asked to speak about the origins of my research on the intersection of policing, race, and crime. I soon realized that to do this I would have to discuss the one thing nobody ever really wants to hear about — the details of your doctoral dissertation. Most people would just as soon listen to twenty minutes of a colicky baby wailing set to a beginner bagpipe lesson. So, you’ll have to forgive the academical tone and profusion of attributions, but perhaps there’s a story in here that will surprise you as much as it did me.
In the spring of 2009, I started writing my dissertation. I knew I wanted to do something about policing and race. If there is well-trod ground in criminal justice circles that is certainly it. The biggest challenge was finding a new way to study some very old questions.
A year earlier I had begun to work with computer simulation models. Around the same time, I started reading the work of the Nobel Prize winning economist, Thomas Schelling. As I thought about things, it became obvious to me that all these areas had a common intersection.
What resulted was a body of research where I built (programmed) simulated digital communities of around ten thousand “residents.” Visually, they were just thousands of red or green dots on a computer screen with a smaller number of blue dots mixed in with them. The color of dot was in my mind analogous to the dot’s race — except for the blue dots. They have no race perse, they were intended to represent the actions and influence of police officers. The residents were randomly assigned a number of different preferences and “personality” traits, but they all had one common goal: Find a place to settle with the least amount of “stress” or “frustration.” The cops’ instructions were also simple: Keep the peace, if you “see” another dot getting out of control, intervene.
I ran these models day and night for a couple of months. I varied the ratio of red to green dots, attempting to simulate the dynamics of smaller or larger minority communities. I made the cops better or worse at their jobs. I made the average frustrations of each group increase or decrease. I tried all kinds of starting configurations (distributions of the dots).