Case Study: Design to Address Racial Biases & Excessive Use of Force in Law Enforcement
Problem & Overview:
Racial biases and police brutality have been a major problem in the US. Research well documents that there is excessive use of force during police arrests and questioning, with minorities suffering the most. For this project, we decided to examine the causes of this excessive use of force and provide design solutions to address the issue.
Time Frame: 4 Weeks
Team: 2 people
My Role: Project Lead
In chapter 31 of Caste: The Origins of Our Discontent, Isabel Wilkerson introduces the idea that we don’t change behavior and mindsets through force and criticism, but rather through mutual connection and understanding. Inspired by Wilkerson’s idea...
I decided to approach the problem through the lens of empathy and from the police officers’ perspective.
I employed a Double Diamond design process that produces human-centered designs.
Lack of empathy between the local community and the police re-enforce bias between the two groups. This accelerates police to civilian interactions negatively and results in more force being used in incidents.
Community engagement between civilians and officers increases their empathy for each other.
How might we create an understanding between the public and the police through mutual interactions so we can reduce tension and mistreatment during incidents?
A platform that bridges officers to professional civilians in different professions so they can engage in conversations on needed topics and increase their empathy for each other.
There would be 2 platforms, one for professional civilians and one for officers. The Primary platform we will design in this study is the one for officers.
Sneak Peak - User Scenarios:
A new officer who just finished training
Want: to learn more about what to expect from civilian interactions
An experienced officer
Want: to stay up to date on topical social issues
We gathered: 10 officers from a variety of backgrounds
4 Pain Points
1. Officers lack the social experience to do well in civilian interactions.
" You need social work & skills to work as a police, or else you create walls during the interaction." — Interviewed Officer
" What we do is customer service. " — Interviewed Officer
Officers’ jobs orient around working with and responding to people.
Good social skills are vital to their job. How they interact and respond to civilians has a tremendous bearing on an incident’s outcome, dictating whether the situation escalates or resolves peacefully.
2. Officers have insufficient empathy and understanding for minority members of society.
Through our interviews, we found that only some cities' police training involves diversity training.
Officers reflected that learning about social issues like race from textbooks during training simply does not achieve a degree of understanding that overcomes their pre-established biases.
3. Officers feel misunderstood and attacked
" It feels like I have to avoid mentioning my job because of the possible backlash. I feel more isolated in the job now than ever. " — Interviewed Officer
Officers feel judged by the public when they have their uniforms on. Furthermore, they have difficulty discussing their experiences with others who are not in the same field because they believe others simply can not understand. The protests around issues of police brutality have only increased their disconnect with the public and increased feelings of hostility. The conclusion we can draw from their feedback is:
Officers want to be understood
Furthermore, officers expressed that civilians often don’t understand protocols. As a result, they respond incorrectly without knowing that certain responses would require officers to move up on the “ladder of force” and use more aggression.
Officers want civilians to have more knowledge of their work and incident protocols
4. Stress from the job can influence officer to civilian interactions negatively
"A lot of us suffer from mental health issues. We are very afraid…terrified, during gunfire and the idea of someone trying to kill you will stick with you forever. " — Interviewed Officer
Officers are very stressed.
" Most of the time we have to deal with people when they are at their worst. It’s hard to stay positive after that. Some of us don’t know how to disconnect from that and become negative. The negative people often make all of their interactions on the job negative.” — Interviewed Officer
When stress becomes unmanageable, officers let stress influence their actions.
Through the same interviews and also a second round of interviews, we gathered insights on existing behaviors that address these pain points.
1. Officers achieve empathy for different social groups through conversations with real people
" The more education and time we spend interacting with other LGBTQ officers, civilians, and making it a part of the culture, the more we know how to treat others and the more people won’t be hesitant to reach out to us for help " — LGBTQ+ Liaison officer, Leader of inclusivity training in his city
Officers gain an understanding of social matters through real interactions with the social group in question, and not through classroom learning.
“If I give a talk today and changed someone by 10%, then that’s enough, and slowly they will change all the way” — LGBTQ+ Liaison officer, Leader of inclusivity training in his city
Arriving at an understanding of social issues is a gradual process, and it is achieved through repeated exposure.
2. When connections are pre-established, incidents are resolved peacefully
“Reaching out to the community and doing community policing helped us tremendously. The community is willing to work with us, a lot of things about respecting others just become second nature to us, we try to make the city a better place.” - Anonymous Sheriff
Officers who engage in community policing find that they form better connections with civilians.
3. Officers cope with stress by doing positive and connective activities
Out of the officers we interviewed, there’s one thing that officers who are managing their stress better all have in common: they understand the importance of positive activities and connections.
They keep themself surrounded by activities that help them stay connected and which generate positive energy.
Responses from officers offer opportunities to address pain points:
Structure & Features:
We used sticky notes to come up with solution ideas to address our user needs.
Tested with 10 officers
We assigned a few tasks for them to perform on the platform. We asked them to think out loud and observed how they completed each task.
Example of how we analyzed our testing notes:
Meaning & Context Based
An example of design changes that are project-based is different words meaning different things in different contexts. Police Officers have a very negative connotation that they associate with the word “confession”.
To iterate, we got rid of the function “Confession Board” altogether. This feature adds noise to our main project mission.
The Most Important Feedback
In addition to connecting officers to others through conversations, panels, and messages, we initially had a Community Post area on the Home page where officers can post thoughts and engage in public discussions online.
However, officers reflected that a post section would allow too much freedom to the officers. They might post inappropriate comments or use passive-aggressive language in the posts.
In addition, having a Community Posts Section confuses our users. Frequently when we ask them to set up a meeting, they posted a community post instead. This is a layout & hierarchy problem. Community posts take up most of the space on our site and overshadow our main function of setting up meetings.
To iterate, we simplified our design and replaced the Community Posts feature with the search bar and meeting & people recommendation feature. This increases officers’ engagement in conversations and with professionals.
Connect to Human Resources
Join Conversation on Topics
Connect to People
Connect to Human Resources:
Social Interactions & exposure creates empathy
Professionals outside of the police force helps police training
Connect to Human Resources:
Network page allows users to save their connections to contacts
Connect to Human Resources:
The profile page
Join Conversation Topics:
Conversations with others create empathy
Connection reduces officers' stress
Join Panels on Topics:
From our interviews, we learned that for officers with extreme views, it is easier for them to change their opinions by first being exposed to the opposite view through listening. Panels are created with the focus on "listening."
Conversations have a max of 3 participants (decided based on readings from research papers on comprehension and communication)
Panels don’t have a participant number limit
Open Up the Topic Before the Meeting:
Meetings can become messy and cause others to lose focus
Officers who establish a timeline before a community meeting perform better in meetings
Ideas can be changed by forced exposure
Community policing departments that assign officers mandatory hours of community engagement reflect higher emotional engagement and accountability from the officers
3 User Segments
Types of Civilian Resources
Civilians and civilians with professional expertise in areas relevant to law enforcement.
For our design project, we mainly explored the connection between officers and professionals. Right now civilians can join panels and conversations to further assist officers in understanding civilian needs.
Where do these human resources come from?
We are going to use Police Departments’ existing behaviors to recruit for human resources. There are a couple of ways in which professionals are already being recruited by departments.
1. Make use of the Existing Database
Police Departments already have professionals from other fields come in during training to talk to officers. We can transfer that database to the site.
2. Bridge Existing Databases
Officers’ human resources are limited by location. By bridging professional human resources from department to department, we can increase officers’ access to people of different socio-economic backgrounds, and thereby increase their tolerance for difference and capacity for empathy.
3. Social Media
An innovative police department that we interviewed created an online presence through social media. From there, they are contacted by and are contacting professional people like policymakers and activists for collaboration and connection. Oftentimes activists would offer to help out this department in, for example, understanding LGBTQ+ people.
Through the same social media platforms, they also connect with civilians and chat with them through messages. Officers reflected that people open up more on social media and connect with them better. Most of the time, a lot of people in need of help wouldn't call 911 but they would text the officers via social media.
Speeds up the Current Meeting System
" If you have access to all of this, it will walk you through the process. You would know this is something you have to talk about, and you can set it up right here. "
Opens a conversation up
" I like that you are forcing people to write out stuff about the meeting beforehand, so the conversation is open before we got there. The hardest part is starting the conversation. This makes it easier. "
" This could give people access to help 24/7 without having to go through a supervisor, which is embarrassing if you want to talk about mental issues, and takes forever."
"This would be a less stressful and easier way for someone to reach out and talk about a touchy topic."
Test the effectiveness for this format of conversations, which involves in-person or video conferencing with three participants, having a structured timeline, etc.
Test for the ideal number of people there can be in a conversation intended for learning and understanding
If the tests indicate difficulty in conversations, test another concept which involves having a third experienced party to facilitate the conversation
Start researching and designing the platform that civilians and civilians in professional fields use to connect with the officers.
Thank you! I am very excited to show you this work and I would love any criticism and welcome any feedback from you!