When you believe in crazy…

So last night I listened to a online discussion with Bill Bratton and Connie Rice. Bratton, you probably know, is the former police commissioner/chief of the NYPD and LAPD. Rice graduated from Harvard and NYU Law and is a civil rights attorney, activist, and a former member of President Barack Obama’s Taskforce on 21st Century Policing. That last part matters. Because that report is taken seriously by a lot of people as a vision for progressive police and a blueprint for reform. (Though I’ve never been a big fan.) The discussion was OK. But I really couldn’t focus on much after this moments 22 minutes in. Ms Rice says:

I’m just going to say this one stat once. If you’re a black man in Nickerson Gardens, today, every time you step out of your unit in that housing project, you face a 45% chance of going to jail. Every day. Not being stopped. That’s 90%. That’s what mass incarceration has done to these communities. That’s not safety, that’s destruction. … We’ve got to stop that aggressive proactive preemptive policing that criminalizes the entire community.

But there’s no way 45% of black men going outside are locked up every day. No way. There’s no way 90% of black men are stopped every day. It’s impossible. How can one with common sense think this to be true?

If there’s a police-related epidemic right now, it’s an epidemic of crazy talk about policing. Not from anti-policing people or somebody at a protest. I’m talking about professors, writers, lawyers, people who impact police reform and policy. People who really should know better.

Last month I was bothered when a respected professor proposing that the NYPD was playing fast and loose with shooting numbers. Then Jill Lepore wrote an article in the New Yorker based, in part, on the belief that a majority of 18-to-34 year-old men admitted to hospital emergency rooms go there because they were beaten by police or security. It can’t be true and it’s not. And if you think it might be true, well, you’re ignorant. And then it’s hard to take your opinions seriously on anything else related.

But maybe Rice misspoke. It happens. I know Bratton heard her. Maybe he blinked. But Bratton is so smooth you don’t even see him flinch. So we’ll let it slide, we will.

But then, 22 minutes later, Rice doubles down:

Rice: I also know in the communities where George Floyd come from, the police have helped to destroy those areas. When you have mass incarceration rates, when somebody can’t walk out of their unit, without facing a 45% chance of going to jail that day? Houston, we’ve got an enormous problem.

This time Bratton jumps in, politely:

Bratton: If I may, Connie, I’m intrigued by that figure. You’ve used it twice now, that 45%, 90%, where did that come from?

Rice: It comes from Dr Raj Chetty, who is an economics professor at Harvard. And he does a report called “Zip Code is Destiny.” … Nickerson Garden Housing project is so big it’s its own census track. And he delved down into the dynamics and the multivariate regression analysis. He isolated what’s the risk of going to jail every day if you’re a black man between 18 and 25. He speaks math, Bill. You and I can’t read his equations. But you can’t knock down that study. It’s rock solid.

“Rock solid”? To me that’s like saying “I double dog dare you!” And, oh, pardon me, I do speak math.

Here’s a “back of the envelope” way to figure out how crazy Rice’s belief is. Nickerson Gardens is 1,066 units of public housing with a population of around 5,000 (I’m making an educated guess on the latter). There are probably ~1,400 black men in Nickerson Gardens. The employment rate for black men in is 48% (Opportunity Atlas, track 06037242600).

So let’s just imagine, as Rice must — that in this police state where men get stopped as soon as they leave their (as she strangely puts it) “unit” — imagine there’s such a fear of the destructive police state that no black man in Nickerson Gardens ever leaves his home except to sneak off to work. We know that’s not true, but even with that absurd assumption, where half the men never leave their house, at least 700 black men must leave their “unit” every day. If 45% of these 700 get arrested, that equals 114,660 arrests a year, just from Nickerson Gardens, population 5,000. But here’s the thing, the LAPD made a total of 90,143 arrests in 2019, for of all of Los Angeles, population 4 million.

Here’s a not so sensational video (as these things go) of life on the streets of Nickerson Gardens. You know what you don’t see? You don’t see cops stopping 90% of men. You don’t see cops arresting 45% of men. Quite frankly, you don’t see cops.

But, I mean, I go into this knowing Rice is wrong. The only question is “how?” (Though what really bothers me is “why?”)

Raj Chetty is probably best know for his Opportunity Atlas, which documents how much of life outcome can be predicted simply by where you grow up. This is good and important stuff. Now I don’t think Raj Chetty (nor anybody else) has written a report titled “Zip Code is Destiny.” I could be wrong. But there’s “The Opportunity Atlas: Mapping the Childhood Roots of Social Mobility.” There’s nothing about 45% of men being arrested.

There’s also “The Impacts of Neighborhoods on Intergenerational Mobility: Childhood Exposure Effects, which is summarized here. I didn’t read it all, but I did look at everything related to Nickerson Gardens, police, arrests, and incarceration. And I found a part about 45%!

44.1% of black males growing up in the poorest (bottom 1%) families in Watts* were incarcerated on April 1, 2010. In contrast, 6.2% of black men who grew up in the lowest-income families in central Compton were incarcerated on April 1, 2010.

* there’s an odd footnote here:

This particular statistic is for a tract in Watts that contains the Nickerson Garden public housing project. For convenience, we refer to tracts by neighborhood names in this paper, but quote statistics from specific tracts within those neighborhoods

I don’t know why you’d choose to do that. Why say “Watts” and “Compton” if you mean one track in Watts and Compton? But what matters for me is they’re taking about incarceration, not arrests. But 44% is still too high. It just is. What gives?

The Opportunity Atlas shows a 7.1% incarceration rate (and a 71% poverty rate) for Nickerson Gardens (both sounds true). And for black men, incarceration is much higher (28%). But the 44.1% Chetty et al reference is only for black men from the lowest 1% of household income, less than $3,300 a year in Nickerson Gardens. If there are 1,400 black men in Nickerson Gardens. 1 in 100 means 14 men. Statistically this gets odd. Yes, maybe 6.2 of these men, statistically, are in prison. But that’s not my point.

But I’m curious how “44.1% incarcerated” transfers into educated urban myth about arrests and a false narrative of racial injustice and over-policing. In February Rice wrote an op-ed in the L.A. Times advocating that the LAPD get rid of their gang database:

45% of black men who grew up in the Nickerson Gardens housing project were incarcerated on one particular day.

Still not true (also not corrected). But hell, the real figure (28%) is still too high. (But so is the rate of murder.) Regardless, Rice is talking about incarceration, not arrest. Now in Rice’s defense, Chetty himself said this in 2018:

CHETTY: On a given day. On a given day — the date of the 2010 census, 45 percent of the black men who grew up in this tract in Watts — it’s called the Nickerson Gardens public housing project. Forty-five percent of them are incarcerated.

But it’s not what his own research shows. He’s kind of muddling the lowest-income part. It’s sloppy, but it’s also a radio interview and having done a lot, I cut him some slack. Here is his greater point:

CHETTY: Here’s maybe something you didn’t know, though. If you go a mile or two away, to Compton, you see that rates of incarceration for black men growing up there in families of comparable income are something like 6 percent. So still actually high — 6 percent is not a small number. But relative to 45 percent, it’s dramatically lower.

See, that’s good stuff. But maybe Chetty doesn’t realize how low his n (number of people in a sample) is here. But it’s his study, and I don’t want to cut Chetty too much slack, because, his verbal errors, as they say, always seem to lean “in the same direction.” I don’t like that.

A fair listener, perhaps even Connie Rice, might think Chetty said 45% of black men in Watts are in prison because that is what Chetty said. He really should make clear he’s talking about the poorest 1% of the population, which is a statistically dubious category for a census tract. (Also, as a side note, who in the world but an economist believes the reliability of self-reported household income data, in Nickerson Gardens, for the poorest 1%? Are you kidding me?)

Anyway, somehow Rice went from hearing a false but understandably misconstrued take on the incarceration rate and turned it into an absurd statement about the probability of arrest. Again:

Rice: Every time you step out of your unit in that housing project, you face a 45% chance of going to jail. Every day. Not being stopped. That’s 90%…. Somebody can’t walk out of their unit, without facing a 45% chance of going to jail that day.

Wow, if that were true, my opinions on policing would be quite different than they are. As to the 90% of black men stopped by police every time they leave their “unit”? I don’t know. It’s also not true. But maybe it comes from some lifetime chance.

Look, I don’t expect everybody to read every study. I don’t expect everybody to be informed on every issue. But I do ask for some basic common sense.

Here’s the thing: Connie Rice is no kook, she’s an educated and respected authority of the law and policing. But you wouldn’t listen to a flat-earther talk about global circumnavigation. You wouldn’t listen to an anti-vaxxer’s opinion about the latest clinical COVID vaccine trials. So why do we listen to misguided people speak about policing? It’s not good for reform. It’s not good for race relations. It’s not good public safety.

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