Breaking down racial profiling

Police turn to data collection to identify bad behavior and regain community trust

Since 1998 — when state troopers stopped a van on the New Jersey Turnpikeand, in the confusion that followed, shot three unarmed minority men — racialprofiling has become an incendiary phrase in America.

As a result, police officers have been on the defensive lately, increasinglypressured by the media, civil rights organizations and legislatures to identifyand weed out any police officer who stops drivers not because of perceivedwrongdoing but solely on the basis of their race.

The vast majority of police officers are not overt racists, expertssay, but the damage caused by a few perpetrators — and the resulting high-profilelawsuits — is already being felt. According to a recent study commissionedby the Clinton administration, more than 60 percent of Americans believethat police departments regularly use discriminatory practices in theirdealings with people. Another study found that jury members have begun toview police testimony with greater skepticism.

Given the current social atmosphere, the goal for many police departmentsis to get a system in place as quickly as possible. There are a number ofefforts under way to curb racial profiling, one of which is having patrolofficers collect the racial and demographic data of every driver stoppedeven if only a verbal warning is given. Historically, information has onlybeen collected when a ticket is written or an arrest is made.

Police officers in Denver, for example, record contact data such asrace and gender by filling out a card developed by Scantron Corp., Tustin,Calif., then feeding that card into an optical reader. Montgomery County,Md., has given its police officers handheld computers and a specializedsoftware program to quickly and easily fill in information about each trafficstop, including the race and gender of the driver, why the stop was initiated,where it occurred, the driver's violations — such as speeding, running ared light or an equipment violation — and the result of the stop, from verbalwarning to field interrogation to arrest.

Oregon's Portland Police Bureau, meanwhile, is collecting much of thesame data using mobile computers already in place in patrol cars; when anofficer clears a call about a traffic or other stop, a screen with severaldata elements pops up, the officer fills them in and the data is transmittedto the 911 center.

"Unfortunately, whether it's perception or reality, there is a feelingout there that the police can't be trusted," said Capt. Bill O'Toole, aspokesman for the Montgomery County Police Department. "And that's a realproblem, so we have no choice but to do something about it."

The new approach — collecting the racial and demographic data of everydriver stopped — finally gives police supervisors a surefire way to identifypotential patterns of racist behavior in its patrol officers, experts say.And it helps police departments take steps to correct that behavior, whetherthrough additional training or something harsher such as suspension or expulsion.

"The real promise of data collection is to give people the informationthey need at the command level, at the citywide level and at the individuallevel to make intelligent decisions and to make good policy," said DavidHarris, a professor at the University of Toledo Law School. "Up until now,the debate has been based on unscientific types of evidence. People believeit's a reality, and all the police can say is, "We're not racists, we don'tdo that.' But without data, they're really in a bad position because theycan't credibly refute it."

Many police departments, however, don't see the simple collection oftraffic stop data as a cure for racial profiling but instead as a way toimprove community relations. But some also fear that, depending on how thenumbers are crunched, data collection could be used against them.

"The challenge is collecting data in a manner that's accurate and presentingit in a manner that's appropriate, but I think if you're dealing with preconceivednotions, all the data in the world may or may not make a difference," saidBill Wesslund, senior information systems manager for the Portland PoliceBureau.

Lt. Steve Carter, a project manager for the Denver Police Departmentworking with the organization's Biased Policing Task Force, agrees. "Datacollection doesn't solve the problem, it only helps identify the existenceof a problem," he says. "Data can be a very powerful but sometimes misleadingtool."

Carter sees it like this: If 30 percent of the people stopped by theDenver police are Hispanics and 20 percent of the city's total populationare Hispanics, at what point does data serve as prima facie evidence thata pattern or practice exists?

"Are we contacting more Hispanics because we're deploying more officersin areas that have been saying they're underserved?" Lt. Carter asked. "Ifwe increase officer density, we're likely to increase the number of contactswe make, so to some, that could automatically lead them to conclude thatwe're engaging in racial profiling. It's a scary thought."

Faced with those kinds of concerns, police departments that took newsystems to the street months ago are still grappling with data analysisprocedures and policies.

The issues can be difficult. For instance, how often does an officerknow the identifying characteristics of the driver prior to a traffic stop?And how do you determine the driving population in a region where thereis a high percentage of commuters?

Harris, an expert on the subject, advises police departments to forgothe knee-jerk comparisons that the media and civil rights organizationshave historically used: traffic stops-to-total population. "It's flat-outthe wrong comparison," he said, "because it does not tell you whether ornot you have a problem."

Instead, he said, police departments should take three different stepsand analyze the results together:

1. Localize the data. Break it down by precinct, neighborhood and locality.

2. Compare data to the driving population in an area. A neighborhoodmay have 20 percent Hispanics, but the number of Hispanic drivers couldbe substantially less if the population includes a lot of elderly or impoverishedresidents. Or a largely minority neighborhood located near a business districtmight feature a high percentage of commuters of various races.

3. Conduct peer-to-peer comparisons. If you compare all the officerswho work the same shift patrolling the same area, the population that they'reeach dealing with is statistically even. If Officer A stands out comparedto Officers B through L, then there's an excellent chance that Officer Aneeds additional training, some guidance or maybe a new line of work.

Below the Surface

Despite the concerns, observers and police officials see long-term benefitsfrom these simple racial profiling systems, especially when they are integratedwith centralized records management, computer dispatch and mobile computingsystems.

The reasons that the police have occasionally engaged in profiling,racial or otherwise, has been because they lack solid information aboutpotential suspects and, as a result, work their beats randomly and reactively,says John Cohen, a former police officer and president and chief executiveofficer of PSComm LLC. The company developed StopTracker, a software programfor collecting data during traffic stops. Used in a proactive way, the newinformation could help officers perform their jobs more effectively andefficiently, he said.

"Part of the problem is that police officers don't start the day withdefined problems that they're going to solve," he said. "They don't startthe day looking for specific people and having information about crime thathas occurred in their neighborhoods. Instead, they're given the keys totheir car, a radio and maybe a mobile data computer, and they drive arounda beat area, responding to calls for service and hoping to stumble upona criminal doing something wrong."

Police officers already collect information about stopped drivers, especiallywhen their behavior seems suspicious — such as a man seen cruising a residentialneighborhood at 3 a.m. on three different occasions. But until now, theyhave written that information on scraps of paper or in their notebooks.Later, while chatting with a colleague or during roll call, an officer maylearn that a series of burglaries has taken place in that neighborhood,and he or she will recall the suspicious driver.

StopTracker, which is being offered to police departments by PSCommin partnership with Aether Systems Inc., can be used initially to collectracial data, then the information can be sent to back-end systems for validationand analysis and then retrieved by the officer to help make informed decisions.Has the driver of the car been arrested before? Has he or she been stoppedrecently and displayed suspicious behavior?

"It actually supports officers in doing their jobs by giving them informationon people, on cars and on places that are possibly or actually involvedin criminal behavior," said John Dorr, director of product marketing forthe Mobile Government division of Aether Systems. "So it makes their effortsmore information-driven and, therefore, creates an environment where theywon't have to rely on possibly biased-based hunches."

Already the system is receiving attention from local police departments,including the city of Gaithersburg, Md., which is set to beta test it usingcomputers in patrol cars.

"The main advantage of it that we see so far is that it is integratedwith our existing mobile data solution," said Barry Smith, information technologydirector for the city. He says one of the biggest issues is ensuring thata system doesn't add to an officer's already heavy bureaucratic burden.

"We have to track data, and whether you do that by paper or buildingyour own system or by having it integrated with the system they're alreadycomfortable with, you have to do something, and this is just the easiestoption for our officers," he said.

Other police departments plan to integrate new technologies as well.Denver, for instance, is building a records management system. Carter saidthe Scan-tron cards will eventually be replaced by handheld or laptop computersin the field.

Officials in Portland, Ore., and Montgomery County, Md., are currentlyworking out data analysis models and hope to incorporate their new systemsinto a larger information-based policing system.

Although police departments are attacking the racial profiling problemthrough training, supervision and community policing measures, data collectionranks as the first and most important step in the process, they say.

"By itself, it cannot really change the problem, but without it we can'tget a grip on the problem," Harris said. "You can't manage what you don'tmeasure, and this is fundamentally a management problem. No police managerwants to believe that his or her officers are not enforcing the law constitutionallyor even-handedly, but if you don't [collect] the information, you can'ttell."

Hayes is a freelance writer based in Stuarts Draft, Va. She can be reachedat hbhayes@cfw.com.

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