Unwittingly Complicit: The Police & Racial Segregation

Dr. Matthew Pate
12 min readJun 20, 2021
A Boarded Up Doorway and a Caution

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).

Dr. Matthew Pate

Criminal Justice Researcher. Erstwhile Detective, Author. Mixed Media Artist. Habitual Line Stepper. Loves Dogs and Cats. Holds Doors. Wishes for Better.