Millions, in record numbers, seek police reforms

La Jolla, Calif. (October 21, 2020) -- Many have recently taken to the streets to demand police reform, but how has the larger public's interest in police reform changed, including the millions that could not participate in protests during the COVID-19 pandemic? And how does the interest for different types of police reform vary based on where people live?

According to a new study published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research, from the Qualcomm Institute's Center for Data Driven Health at the University of California San Diego in collaboration with other leading research institutions, millions have taken to the internet in record numbers to voice their interests in police reforms by searching for information on Google.

Identifying Public Interest in Police Reforms Using Internet Search Histories

The starting point for policy making is listening to the public. Although many voices are heard through protests, petitions, and surveys, many more voices unfortunately are never heard. But are there other methods to engage and listen to the public?

Similar to how the research team previously monitored internet searches to track influenza, identify suicide ideation, and discover the rise in acute anxiety during the COVID-19 pandemic, this new study argues that monitoring internet searches can be an effective way to understand the policy interests of the public.

"Discussing political opinions openly in this polarized landscape is not something anyone is eager to do," said Dr. John W. Ayers, Co-Founder of the Center for Data Driven Health, Vice Chief of Innovation in the Division of Infectious Disease and Global Public Health at UC San Diego, and lead author. "Instead when it comes to controversial issues like police reform you're far more likely to stay mum and search online about what you may be thinking. By examining internet searches decision makers can discover what issues and policies resonate with the public."

The research team monitored all Google searches emerging from the United States for January 1, 2010 through July 5, 2020 that mentioned "police" and "reform(s)" as an indicator of general interest in police reforms. To identify what potential reforms the public were interested in, the team monitored searches that mentioned "police" in combination with "immunity", "union(s)", "training", or "militarization;" all popular police reform areas that have become increasingly part of the national conversation. The team then evaluated how search volumes changed recently following the killing of Mr. George Floyd by comparing the search volumes that were observed to search volumes to what would have been expected from historical patterns.

Record National Interest in Police Reform

In the 41 days following Mr. Floyd's death, searches for police "reform(s)" hit record highs eclipsing past searches for police reform by over 150-fold. This translates into about 1,350,000 total searches for police reform with searches increasing in all 50 states and Washington DC.

"The US is at an acute historical juncture with record interest in police reforms sweeping the entire nation." said Dr. Benjamin Althouse, Principal Scientist at the Institute for Disease Modeling and study co-author. "While people are taking to the streets in protest, many more are they seeking reforms online."

Searching for Reforms to Police Unions, Training, Immunity, and Militarization

Searches for specific reform topics also set new national benchmarks. Searches for police and "union(s)" eclipsed the past all-time highs by 4.5-fold, "training" by 4.8-fold, "immunity" by 53-fold, and "militarization" by 34-fold. This translates into about 1,220,000 total searches for "union(s)", 820,000 for "training", 360,000 for "immunity," and 72,000 for "militarization."

How the States Searched for Police Reforms

Thirty-three states searched more for police "training" than any other reform topic, including AK, PA, MN, and NJ. Sixteen states searched more for police "union(s)" than any other reform topic, including WY, MS, SD, and WV. Only 2 states searched more for police "immunity" (ND and NM) and no states searched more for police "militarization" than all other topics.

The team notes important differences that emerged across the 2016 US presidential election results. States won by President Trump during the 2016 presidential election had a greater proportion of total searches for police "union(s)" (57%) compared to states won by Secretary Clinton which searched more for police "training."

"These differences highlight how states have varying needs," said Dr. Adam Poliak, a Roman Family Faculty Fellow at Barnard College, and study co-author. "Local policy makers do not need to wait for national leaders, they can use state specific trends to find the types of reforms that are best suited to their constituents' needs."

Internet Searches as a Call-To-Action for Policy Makers

Policy making depends on timely, up-to-date knowledge of the public's needs. The authors do not advocate for any specific policy position. Rather, in this study, the authors simply advocate for policy makers to use internet searches as a way to listen to and address the needs of their constituents based on real time data.

"For example the 'Justice Act' proposed by Senator Tim Scott (R) of South Carolina called for improving police training but did not mention police unions. However, given there were more searches for police unions in South Carolina and states that supported his political party during the last presidential election Senator Scott might consider including these forms in initial proposals," added Dr. Ayers.

The potential value add of search histories can be substantial, the team argues. "Currently, we evaluate the public's interest in policy using methods, like surveys, that ask specific questions relating to a specific point in time. A snapshot of sorts," said Dr. Alicia Nobles, Co-Founder of the Center for Data Driven Health, Assistant Professor in the Division of Infectious Disease and Global Public Health at UC San Diego, and co-author. "However, monitoring internet searches gives us a more robust picture of public interest - we can capture more voices, in their own words, and in near real time engendering more democratic policy making. "

Internet Searches and Novel Big Media Data as a Scientific Resource

Internet search histories can provide insights that go beyond policy advocacy the team noted. "Researchers who study policing can similarly examine novel digital data like social media and news media," added Dr. Mark Dredze the John C. Malone Professor of Computer Science at Johns Hopkins University and study coauthor "For instance, victims of nonfatal instances of police misconduct might search online for help and these digital tracings could be used to evaluate trends and the geographic distribution of misconduct in almost real-time."

Despite both the American Medical Association and American Public Health Association advocating for police reform, the team notes that health researchers have done little to advance evidence-based practice. "Few medical or public health studies focus on policing, even though policing is an increasingly important public health issue, added Dr. Eric Leas, Co-Founder of the Center for Data Driven Health, Assistant Professor in the Division of Infectious Disease and Global Public Health at UC San Diego. "For instance, just a handful of studies among the millions archived on PubMed, the health science's research index, even mention police reform. Where data has been a barrier turning to novel data sources, like internet searches, means more work can begin now."

"The health community has extensive experience studying relevant areas, including unintended medical errors and systematic bias, and the health community can bring those insights to the topic of policing," said Dr. Davey Smith, Chief of Infectious Disease and Global Public Health at UC San Diego and study coauthor. "Everyone agrees that the public should be heard and evidence-based strategies to improve policing should be implemented. Tapping into new data that brings with it new expertise, like that medicine and public health has to offer, can realize true evidence-based reform."

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