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The Ferguson Effect: Public Sociology and the Making of an American Statistic

Mon, August 14, 10:30am to 12:10pm, Palais des congrès de Montréal, Floor: Level 5, 515A


How many people are killed by police each year in America? This question, fundamental to the integrity of democracy, is currently impossible to answer. Why? In this paper, I account for this missing statistic by giving a historical account of statistics as a science of the state, the rise of data-driven policing, and the changing landscape of data production by activists and journalists equipped with technologies of social change- the use of internet communication tools in the service of the public good. I show how statistical data became the backbone of contemporary policing in the 1990s through the implementation of statistical software, Compstat, developed by police officers to reduce crime. Yet, the release of Compstat’s data to federal agencies, the media, and the public became a contested issue, where local departments feared the scrutiny that would follow. In short, calls for open data threatened the autonomy of police departments. In 2015, activists and data journalists built databases to track arrest-related deaths using sources available online and in public records requests. I compare the data and methods of these five organizations to illustrate how these public sociology projects are impacting policing on a national scale.