Farhang Heydari

Executive Director, The Policing Project at New York University

Farhang Heydari, Executive Director of The Policing Project at New York University
David Kidd/Government Technology
Farhang Heydari feels a desire for change in the air. After police killed George Floyd in Minneapolis — to name just one video of a Black person’s death at the hands of uniformed officers — he said the attitude of much of the country seems different.

“Now, more than any time in my lifetime, the part of society that never interacts with police is starting to understand the problems, and that’s why I think there’s more of a chance for change,” he said.

Heydari is in a unique position to advance that change. He is the first executive director of the Policing Project, a team founded in 2015 at the New York University School of Law. The project, which includes experts and advocates such as Barry Friedman, Maria Ponomarenko and Mecole Jordan-McBride, aims to improve policing by working with departments, the communities they serve and the companies that sell to them.

A lot of that work involves making police decisions more transparent, and amplifying the voices of policed communities when it comes to making those decisions.

Although it’s not focused only on technology, the project has made some important strides in that area. It staffed Axon’s AI ethics board, which was instrumental in persuading the company not to include facial recognition in its body-worn cameras. It’s also conducting audits for tech companies to help them address their problems proactively, with an attitude that a “yes or no” approach to new tools is not helpful.

The idea is to push the corporate ecosystem toward an ethos of responsibility — where profit and impact are either entwined or equally important.

“Imagine if, when you’re thinking, ‘Which face recognition vendor do I go with?’ one of the key questions was, what are the biases of the algorithm? What are their data privacy practices? Do they mine photos from social media? Do they keep my photos on the back end to improve their algorithm? If policymakers started asking those questions, if communities started asking those questions, we might be able to get companies to actually compete over being the most ethical.”
Ben Miller is the associate editor of data and business for Government Technology. His reporting experience includes breaking news, business, community features and technical subjects. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in journalism from the Reynolds School of Journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno, and lives in Sacramento, Calif.