Better data (and common sense) can end police brutality
How activism has led to better data regarding police brutality.
DeRay Mckesson is a civil rights activist, community organizer, and the host of Crooked Media's award-winning podcast, Pod Save the People. He started his career as an educator and came to prominence for his participation in, and documentation of, the Ferguson protests and the movement they birthed, and for publicly advocating for victims of police violence and to end mass incarceration. He's spoken at venues from the White House to the Oxford Union, at universities, and on TV. Named one of Time's 30 Most Influential People on the Internet and #11 on Fortune's World's Greatest Leaders list, he has received honorary doctorates from The New School and the Maryland Institute College of Art. A leading voice in the Black Lives Matter movement and the co-founder of Campaign Zero, a policy platform to end police violence, Mckesson lives in Baltimore, Maryland.
DERAY MCKESSON: A lot of people don't know is that any number you've ever heard about police violence comes through the aggregate of media reports. If you get killed in this country and a newspaper doesn't write about it, it's not covered on like a blog or like a TV or something, you literally don't exist in the data set. The federal government doesn't collect information about police killings in any systemic way. We can tell you the rainfall in Missouri in 1830, and we can't actually tell you how many people got killed, like, as a hard fact last year. We don't know it. What we know is like the aggregate of media reports, these incredible activists years ago set up these two big databases that essentially called like an advanced Google alerts of like police killings, and that is the source data for everything that you've ever seen on police killings. Some of the biggest databases that you might have heard of are like the Washington Post Database, fatal encounters killed by police.
We created Mapping Police Violence to create the single stop database that had the most comprehensive data about police killings. If you think about the Washington Post Database, for instance, they only have killings by officers on duty that use a gun. So say for example an officer goes home and runs somebody over with their car, like that's not counted. Say somebody is on duty and the officer runs you over with their car, not accounted. Eric Garner's death is not in the Washington Post Database. Why? Because he wasn't killed with a gun.
So we wanted to say that like whether you got killed by a taser, a chokehold, whether the officer was at home and like killed his wife off-duty, we consider all of those to be symptoms of the same sort of root problem. So that's why we created the database. And what we know is that, left to their own devices, that police will just never report this data. There are times where the state of Florida has reported zero police killings in entire spans of years, and you're like "We know that's not true, like we could just look at the news and see it wasn't zero!" So the data actually is really important for us to help locate what the problem is and what the solution should be.
And the last thing I'll say is that we have to figure out how to start talking about police violence beyond death. So we know that the police inflict damage in communities in ways like sexual assault, verbal abuse, those sort of things, and the data we have most readily available is about death, but because we only focus on death with the data, we're losing how the police impact women, how the police impact LGBT communities, like any other ways that don't result in death but are still really bad—and we have to figure out how to do that. One of the limitations is that most police departments definitely don't make that data publicly available or don't collect it in any systemic way. So you think about police departments like Baltimore where so much of the data is on paper, you're like "Well, who is sitting down analyzing ten million records on paper? Nobody right now," and that becomes like a challenge.
So what we found were a couple myth busters. We found things like there's this idea that community violence and police violence are related, so in communities where there's just a lot of violence people say that "the police just have to be there, because the communities are violent and so the police must be there. And because the police must be there it's just more likely that they'll probably engage in violence against communities." And we found that that's just not true. There are places where there's a lot of community violence and almost no police violence, and the inverse is also true that there's no real relationship between community violence and police violence. We also found is that black people are actually more likely to be unarmed than any other race of people who are killed by police.
So there's this myth that black people are just like carrying guns around and like they're in the presence of police, and that actually isn't true. And with regard to policy we found out a lot of things. So we created the first public database of use of force policies and police union contracts in the country because we were trying to figure out like why are the police not accountable? Is it really that prosecutors and mayors just don't care? Like what is it?
What we found is that there's literally just a different justice system. So you think about places like in Maryland, in Maryland the law literally says that a citizen can file an anonymous complaint against an officer for everything except brutality. I don't even know what that means. In California there is a law that says that any investigation of an officer that lasts more than a year can never result in discipline. Like I don't even know what that means. In places like in Baton Rouge you can't file a complaint over the phone against an officer. There are places where you have to file an affidavit, like where would you go to get an affidavit today? I don't know.
There are all these things that almost guarantee that officers won't be held accountable, and we shed light on them for the first time with this big database trying to help people see like - and actually you could get a great prosecutor, but if the rules are set up against everybody the great prosecutor is still hamstrung. You can get a mayor, you can get a city council, but if we don't focus on these structural things that aren't necessarily the most "sexy," but if they're actually the most salient in terms of outcomes like we'll never win. And that's why we created Mapping Police Violence to get the data and then Campaign Zero to talk about the policies and solutions that actually might change the system of accountability.
So we made the first valid database of use of force policies in the country and it was hard to get good—Use of Force policies, for people that don't know, are essentially the rules that police use to say whether they can use force against somebody, anything up to (and leading to) death or murder. And what we found is that, A, it was just really hard to get the record. So our data set right now is the hundred biggest cities in the country and some places sent us back almost entirely redacted policies, some places, after a long battle we got them, and what we found are a couple of things: one is that one of the things that we look for is do you ban chokehold? We know that there are almost no instances where like it makes sense for an officer to restrict somebody's airway. We also found that there's some slipperiness that happens and New York City is a great example of like chokeholds are banned in New York City. "Eric Gardner," the police would say, "was not put me in a chokehold, he was put in a stranglehold and strangleholds aren't banned in New York City." And you're like people experience them all the same, he still died.
So we mapped that across places. We also map is there a continuum of force? Is there like an officer has to use a verbal warning then use something else? There is a lot of places where there isn't a continuum, it's sort of like you just use force, and you're like "Well that doesn't really make a lot of sense." We also mapped to look at: can you shoot in moving cars? What we find is that when you look at the data the police would have you believe that they respond, that they're always responding to bank robberies, like every single 911 call is a bank robbery, and the data just actually doesn't support that. So when you see some of the stuff that is leading to these car chases it actually just isn't worth the collateral damage. It's not worth somebody getting shot, their legs still being on the gas, and them running pedestrians over. Like none of it is worth it.
Especially in a time where there's like helicopters, like if you wanted to find the person you're probably going to find them, so we should ban shooting into moving vehicles. Like we are mapping all of these things so that we can say to departments, A, we know that there's a problem in your city because we have the data on police violence. B, there is structural things that you can actually change that statistically suggest that they'll have a better outcome in those places, so we mapped them. Does your partner have to intervene if they see you using force unnecessarily? We think that they should. Do you have to engage lesser force before you use lethal force? We think you should. We're up against a system that's really challenging. The police for decades have been taught something called the 21-foot rule. I don't know if you've ever heard of the 21-foot rule, but they get trained that if somebody is within 21 feet of you they can kill you. That's like the rule that they get trained. So you're like, why did you shoot the guy with a knife? And they're like "we were trained that if they're within 21 feet of us they can run quick enough to kill you." And you're like, who is making this stuff up? And like it's been disproven. It's like crackpot science, but those things are actually like really dangerous and we wanted to say :what are the policies and solutions that either lead to these outcomes or that we can change?
- The federal government doesn't collect information about police killings in any systemic way. What this means is that we can't actually tell you, as a hard fact, how many people were killed last year.
- McKesson and his fellow Black Lives Matter organizers have created Mapping Police Violence to create a single-stop database with the most comprehensive data about police killings.
- When it comes to filing complaints against officers, many states have policies in place that make it quite difficult for them to be held accountable.
- How white people can help #BlackLivesMatter - Big Think ›
- George Floyd: List shows 500 videos of alleged police brutality - Big Think ›
- Crime is not reduced by militarizing police says study - Big Think ›
- Crime is not reduced by militarizing police says study - Big Think ›
Once a week.
Subscribe to our weekly newsletter.
Are "humanized" pigs the future of medical research?
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration requires all new medicines to be tested in animals before use in people. Pigs make better medical research subjects than mice, because they are closer to humans in size, physiology and genetic makeup.
In recent years, our team at Iowa State University has found a way to make pigs an even closer stand-in for humans. We have successfully transferred components of the human immune system into pigs that lack a functional immune system. This breakthrough has the potential to accelerate medical research in many areas, including virus and vaccine research, as well as cancer and stem cell therapeutics.
Existing biomedical models
Severe Combined Immunodeficiency, or SCID, is a genetic condition that causes impaired development of the immune system. People can develop SCID, as dramatized in the 1976 movie “The Boy in the Plastic Bubble." Other animals can develop SCID, too, including mice.
Researchers in the 1980s recognized that SCID mice could be implanted with human immune cells for further study. Such mice are called “humanized" mice and have been optimized over the past 30 years to study many questions relevant to human health.
Mice are the most commonly used animal in biomedical research, but results from mice often do not translate well to human responses, thanks to differences in metabolism, size and divergent cell functions compared with people.
Nonhuman primates are also used for medical research and are certainly closer stand-ins for humans. But using them for this purpose raises numerous ethical considerations. With these concerns in mind, the National Institutes of Health retired most of its chimpanzees from biomedical research in 2013.
Alternative animal models are in demand.
Swine are a viable option for medical research because of their similarities to humans. And with their widespread commercial use, pigs are met with fewer ethical dilemmas than primates. Upwards of 100 million hogs are slaughtered each year for food in the U.S.
In 2012, groups at Iowa State University and Kansas State University, including Jack Dekkers, an expert in animal breeding and genetics, and Raymond Rowland, a specialist in animal diseases, serendipitously discovered a naturally occurring genetic mutation in pigs that caused SCID. We wondered if we could develop these pigs to create a new biomedical model.
Our group has worked for nearly a decade developing and optimizing SCID pigs for applications in biomedical research. In 2018, we achieved a twofold milestone when working with animal physiologist Jason Ross and his lab. Together we developed a more immunocompromised pig than the original SCID pig – and successfully humanized it, by transferring cultured human immune stem cells into the livers of developing piglets.
During early fetal development, immune cells develop within the liver, providing an opportunity to introduce human cells. We inject human immune stem cells into fetal pig livers using ultrasound imaging as a guide. As the pig fetus develops, the injected human immune stem cells begin to differentiate – or change into other kinds of cells – and spread through the pig's body. Once SCID piglets are born, we can detect human immune cells in their blood, liver, spleen and thymus gland. This humanization is what makes them so valuable for testing new medical treatments.
We have found that human ovarian tumors survive and grow in SCID pigs, giving us an opportunity to study ovarian cancer in a new way. Similarly, because human skin survives on SCID pigs, scientists may be able to develop new treatments for skin burns. Other research possibilities are numerous.
The ultraclean SCID pig biocontainment facility in Ames, Iowa. Adeline Boettcher, CC BY-SA
Pigs in a bubble
Since our pigs lack essential components of their immune system, they are extremely susceptible to infection and require special housing to help reduce exposure to pathogens.
SCID pigs are raised in bubble biocontainment facilities. Positive pressure rooms, which maintain a higher air pressure than the surrounding environment to keep pathogens out, are coupled with highly filtered air and water. All personnel are required to wear full personal protective equipment. We typically have anywhere from two to 15 SCID pigs and breeding animals at a given time. (Our breeding animals do not have SCID, but they are genetic carriers of the mutation, so their offspring may have SCID.)
As with any animal research, ethical considerations are always front and center. All our protocols are approved by Iowa State University's Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee and are in accordance with The National Institutes of Health's Guide for the Care and Use of Laboratory Animals.
Every day, twice a day, our pigs are checked by expert caretakers who monitor their health status and provide engagement. We have veterinarians on call. If any pigs fall ill, and drug or antibiotic intervention does not improve their condition, the animals are humanely euthanized.
Our goal is to continue optimizing our humanized SCID pigs so they can be more readily available for stem cell therapy testing, as well as research in other areas, including cancer. We hope the development of the SCID pig model will pave the way for advancements in therapeutic testing, with the long-term goal of improving human patient outcomes.
Adeline Boettcher earned her research-based Ph.D. working on the SCID project in 2019.
Satellite imagery can help better predict volcanic eruptions by monitoring changes in surface temperature near volcanoes.
- A recent study used data collected by NASA satellites to conduct a statistical analysis of surface temperatures near volcanoes that erupted from 2002 to 2019.
- The results showed that surface temperatures near volcanoes gradually increased in the months and years prior to eruptions.
- The method was able to detect potential eruptions that were not anticipated by other volcano monitoring methods, such as eruptions in Japan in 2014 and Chile in 2015.
How can modern technology help warn us of impending volcanic eruptions?
One promising answer may lie in satellite imagery. In a recent study published in Nature Geoscience, researchers used infrared data collected by NASA satellites to study the conditions near volcanoes in the months and years before they erupted.
The results revealed a pattern: Prior to eruptions, an unusually large amount of heat had been escaping through soil near volcanoes. This diffusion of subterranean heat — which is a byproduct of "large-scale thermal unrest" — could potentially represent a warning sign of future eruptions.
Conceptual model of large-scale thermal unrestCredit: Girona et al.
For the study, the researchers conducted a statistical analysis of changes in surface temperature near volcanoes, using data collected over 16.5 years by NASA's Terra and Aqua satellites. The results showed that eruptions tended to occur around the time when surface temperatures near the volcanoes peaked.
Eruptions were preceded by "subtle but significant long-term (years), large-scale (tens of square kilometres) increases in their radiant heat flux (up to ~1 °C in median radiant temperature)," the researchers wrote. After eruptions, surface temperatures reliably decreased, though the cool-down period took longer for bigger eruptions.
"Volcanoes can experience thermal unrest for several years before eruption," the researchers wrote. "This thermal unrest is dominated by a large-scale phenomenon operating over extensive areas of volcanic edifices, can be an early indicator of volcanic reactivation, can increase prior to different types of eruption and can be tracked through a statistical analysis of little-processed (that is, radiance or radiant temperature) satellite-based remote sensing data with high temporal resolution."
Temporal variations of target volcanoesCredit: Girona et al.
Although using satellites to monitor thermal unrest wouldn't enable scientists to make hyper-specific eruption predictions (like predicting the exact day), it could significantly improve prediction efforts. Seismologists and volcanologists currently use a range of techniques to forecast eruptions, including monitoring for gas emissions, ground deformation, and changes to nearby water channels, to name a few.
Still, none of these techniques have proven completely reliable, both because of the science and the practical barriers (e.g. funding) standing in the way of large-scale monitoring. In 2014, for example, Japan's Mount Ontake suddenly erupted, killing 63 people. It was the nation's deadliest eruption in nearly a century.
In the study, the researchers found that surface temperatures near Mount Ontake had been increasing in the two years prior to the eruption. To date, no other monitoring method has detected "well-defined" warning signs for the 2014 disaster, the researchers noted.
The researchers hope satellite-based infrared monitoring techniques, combined with existing methods, can improve prediction efforts for volcanic eruptions. Volcanic eruptions have killed about 2,000 people since 2000.
"Our findings can open new horizons to better constrain magma–hydrothermal interaction processes, especially when integrated with other datasets, allowing us to explore the thermal budget of volcanoes and anticipate eruptions that are very difficult to forecast through other geophysical/geochemical methods."
Certain water beetles can escape from frogs after being consumed.
- A Japanese scientist shows that some beetles can wiggle out of frog's butts after being eaten whole.
- The research suggests the beetle can get out in as little as 7 minutes.
- Most of the beetles swallowed in the experiment survived with no complications after being excreted.
In what is perhaps one of the weirdest experiments ever that comes from the category of "why did anyone need to know this?" scientists have proven that the Regimbartia attenuata beetle can climb out of a frog's butt after being eaten.
The research was carried out by Kobe University ecologist Shinji Sugiura. His team found that the majority of beetles swallowed by black-spotted pond frogs (Pelophylax nigromaculatus) used in their experiment managed to escape about 6 hours after and were perfectly fine.
"Here, I report active escape of the aquatic beetle R. attenuata from the vents of five frog species via the digestive tract," writes Sugiura in a new paper, adding "although adult beetles were easily eaten by frogs, 90 percent of swallowed beetles were excreted within six hours after being eaten and, surprisingly, were still alive."
One bug even got out in as little as 7 minutes.
Sugiura also tried putting wax on the legs of some of the beetles, preventing them from moving. These ones were not able to make it out alive, taking from 38 to 150 hours to be digested.
Naturally, as anyone would upon encountering such a story, you're wondering where's the video. Thankfully, the scientists recorded the proceedings:
The Regimbartia attenuata beetle can be found in the tropics, especially as pests in fish hatcheries. It's not the only kind of creature that can survive being swallowed. A recent study showed that snake eels are able to burrow out of the stomachs of fish using their sharp tails, only to become stuck, die, and be mummified in the gut cavity. Scientists are calling the beetle's ability the first documented "active prey escape." Usually, such travelers through the digestive tract have particular adaptations that make it possible for them to withstand extreme pH and lack of oxygen. The researchers think the beetle's trick is in inducing the frog to open a so-called "vent" controlled by the sphincter muscle.
"Individuals were always excreted head first from the frog vent, suggesting that R. attenuata stimulates the hind gut, urging the frog to defecate," explains Sugiura.
For more information, check out the study published in Current Biology.
The design of a classic video game yields insights on how to address global poverty.
- A new essay compares the power-up system in Mario Kart to feedback loops in real-life systems.
- Both try to provide targeted benefits to those who most need them.
- While games are simpler than reality, Mario's example makes the real-life cases easier to understand.
Poverty can be a self-sustaining cycle that might require an external influence to break it. A new paper published in Nature Sustainability and written by professor Andrew Bell of Boston University suggests that we could improve global anti-poverty and economic development systems by turning to an idea in a video game about a race car-driving Italian plumber.
A primer on Mario Kart
For those who have not played it, Mario Kart is a racing game starring Super Mario and other characters from the video game franchise that bears his name. Players race around tracks collecting power-ups that can directly help them, such as mushrooms that speed up their karts, or slow down other players, such as heat-seeking turtle shells that momentarily crash other karts.
The game is well known for having a mechanism known as "rubber-banding." Racers in the front of the pack get wimpy power-ups, like banana peels to slip up other karts, while those toward the back get stronger ones, like golden mushrooms that provide extra long speed boosts. The effect of this is that those in the back are pushed towards the center, and those in front don't get any boosts that would make catching them impossible.
If you're in last, you might get the help you need to make a last-minute break for the lead. If you're in first, you have to be on the lookout for these breakouts (and the ever-dreaded blue shells). The game remains competitive and fun.
Rubber-banding: A moral and economic lesson from Mario Kart
In the real world, we see rubber-banding used all the time. Welfare systems tend to provide more aid to those who need it than those who do not. Many of them are financed by progressive taxation, which is heavier on the well-off than the down-and-out. Some research suggests that these do work, as countries with lower levels of income inequality have higher social mobility levels.
It is a little more difficult to use rubber-banding in real life than in a video game, of course. While in the game, it is easy to decide who is doing well and who is not, things can be a little more muddled in reality. Furthermore, while those in a racing game are necessarily antagonistic to each other, real systems often strive to improve conditions for everybody or to reach common goals.
As Bell points out, rubber-banding can also be used to encourage sustainable, growth programs that help the poor other than welfare. They point out projects such as irrigation systems in Pakistan or Payments for Ecosystems Services (PES) schemes in Malawi, which utilize positive feedback loops to both provide aid to the poor and promote stable systems that benefit everyone.
Rubber-banding feedback loops in different systems. Mario Kart (a), irrigation systems in Pakistan (b), and PES operations in Malawi (c) are shown. Links between one better-off (blue) and one worse-off (red) individual are highlighted. Feedback in Mario Kart (a), designed to balance the racers, imprAndrew Bell/ Nature Sustainability
In the Malawi case, farmers were paid to practice conservation agriculture to reduce the amount of sediment from their farms flowing into a river. This immediately benefits hydroelectric producers and their customers but also provides real benefits to farmers in the long run as their soil doesn't erode. By providing an incentive to the farmers to conserve the soil, a virtuous cycle of conservation, soil improvement, and improved yields can begin.
While this loop differs from the rubber-banding in Mario, the game's approach can help illustrate the benefits of rubber-banding in achieving a more equitable world.
The task now, as Bell says in his paper, is to look at problems that exist and find out "what the golden mushroom might be."