Given his expertise, it comes as little surprise that current events have made University of Maryland sociologist Rashawn Ray a media and policy star. He specializes in studying why both police and disease are more likely to treat African Americans more harshly than whites.
The 39-year-old African American professor and researcher has recently given a flood of national and local television interviews. He has advised lawmakers in Congress, Annapolis and the Maryland suburbs.
What is perhaps more surprising is Ray’s evenhanded position on how best to reform policing. On one hand, he says strict accountability measures, especially financial penalties, are needed to combat what he calls police forces’ systemic racism. He specifically debunks the theory that police abuses arise only from a few “bad apples.”
But Ray also has sympathy for the officers themselves, whom he calls “overworked, overstressed and underpaid.”
He says reforms need to include reduced workloads and increased psychological help for officers. He recommends giving them housing subsidies so they can rely less on second jobs and overtime, and afford to live in the communities where they work.
“When people are overstressed and underpaid, they aren’t mentally fit; they don’t make good decisions,” he said. “Their implicit biases, their stereotypes, go on steroids.”
Ray’s reform agenda is based on policing data that he has collected over a decade. He began such study while teaching at the University of California at Berkeley and continued when he moved to College Park in 2012. He is on sabbatical from U-Md. to be a fellow at the Brookings Institution.
At U-Md., Ray founded the Lab for Applied Social Science Research (LASSR), where he is executive director, with a mission to conduct research that will influence public policy. He and his LASSR colleagues have conducted 300 interviews with officers and 100 civilians in 10 police departments in the Washington region and elsewhere around the country. They have also worked with the Department of Homeland Security and the military.
Ray has overseen “implicit bias” training programs conducted with about 2,500 officers to teach them to recognize their own racial prejudices. But he concluded that the courses were not as effective as hoped.
“We’re sitting in a classroom and I’m telling them a bunch of stuff, [and] rarely do any of them think, ‘This is me,’ ” he said.
As a result, Ray created a more sophisticated course – using virtual reality equipment – to put officers in simulated incidents where they have to make decisions. These include situations such as a traffic stop, convenience store robbery, domestic dispute, and encountering a suspicious person on the street who may be armed.
The effort has occasionally faced resistance. Dozens of Prince George’s County, Md., officers walked out in protest while Ray was conducting a bias training lesson two years ago. Ray said that incident reflected a problematic culture highlighted Thursday with release of a damning report on racial discrimination within the Prince George’s department. Police Chief Hank Stawinski resigned later the same day.
Ray grew up in Murfreesboro, Tenn., where his great-uncle was the first black police chief. He received his bachelor’s degree from the University of Memphis and a Ph.D. from the University of Indiana. He later married his high school sweetheart, and the couple live in Prince George’s with sons ages 8 and 9.
Ray’s interest in police interactions with African Americans originated in his public health research while teaching at Berkeley. While studying obesity, he found that black men living in white neighborhoods were significantly less likely to be physically active.
“They would be exercising, jogging down the street, and someone would call the police on them,” he said. The insight anticipated the recent killing of Georgia jogger Ahmaud Arbery.
Earlier this year, before the policing debate exploded, Ray was writing about racial disparities in the novel coronavirus pandemic.
In a Brookings article, Ray said that black Americans were contracting the virus and dying from it at higher rates than whites because they live in underserved neighborhoods, are more numerous in “essential” low-wage jobs where they are exposed to the virus, and experience higher pollution.
To address the problem, his recommendations included putting more testing centers in black neighborhoods. In an interview, he praised Maryland Republican Gov. Larry Hogan for opening an early testing center at FedEx Field in Landover, which is convenient to many African Americans in predominantly black Prince George’s.
Ray also called for paid leave and hazard pay for essential workers. He said his proposals should apply not only to African Americans, but also to “low-income workers and people living in rural areas with limited health-care access.”
More recently, Ray has discussed police reform with congressional leaders including Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., and Reps. James Clyburn, D-S.C., and Maxine Waters, D-Calif.
Regarding calls to “defund the police,” Ray favors reallocating some funding from law enforcement to social services so police don’t have to deal with matters that would be better handled by, say, a mental health specialist.
“About 90 percent of calls [for] service have nothing to do with anything violent, things like potholes or a cat being up in a tree,” Ray said. Police “have so much to do that they can’t concentrate on key cases like murder, sexual assaults, robbery,” he said.
In his writings and speaking engagements, Ray offers a four-point agenda for police reform:
– Strengthen internal accountability. A top priority for Ray is forcing police agencies to bear the cost of legal settlements with victims of officers’ abuse. Such payments can reach into the millions of dollars, but typically are funded from the general budgets of cities, counties or states. That means there’s no financial incentive for police chiefs to crack down on misconduct.
“It doesn’t come out of the police department budget. They don’t suffer any penalty,” Ray said.
He also wants more protections for “good apple” police, who call out misconduct by fellow officers.
“There are so many officers I’ve interviewed who have blown the whistle, and then they get vilified for it,” Ray said.
– Prevent “bad apples” from moving to new jobs. Ray supports the Trump administration’s recent proposal to create a federal database to track police found culpable of misconduct, so they can’t get jobs elsewhere.
But he thinks the plan doesn’t go far enough, because it doesn’t address the payouts issue or the need to weaken civil immunity policies that protect police against lawsuits.
– Reduce police workloads. “Officers whom I study, they’re working 60, 80, 100 hours a week,” Ray said. “You can’t function like that.”
– Increase pay or provide housing subsidies so officers can forge positive connections with the neighborhoods where they work.
“If you want them to live in the community, shop in the community, go to church in the community, then they have to have more money to do it,” he said.
It’s vital to improve officers’ working conditions, at the same time that you make them more accountable, Ray said: “You can’t just make reform changes without including the people at the center, who are going to be the ones most impacted.”