Sunday, April 24, 2005

Police don't want to improve profiling data

Never judge tea leaves, I think is my lesson here. I'm not very good at it. Earlier, Grits suggested that civil rights groups and police were "within spitting distance" of an agreement regarding SB 1503 by West -- which would fine tune Texas' racial profiling law to set uniform data standards and create a central repository for the reports.

Boy was I wrong. A couple of law enforcement types testified in favor of the bill -- the El Paso chief said they already gathered all the new data the bill would require, including linking racial profiling data to the badge number of the officer writing the citation, and they'd had no ill effects. The bill's cause wasn't helped by testimony by academics from the University of North Texas, which would house the new repository. I've been working closely on this issue for five four years and I barely understood what they were talking about. No way the senators did. I testified on behalf of ACLU of Texas, and the other civil rights groups were represented. But the bulk of the hearing was taken up by the unions, police departments, the Sheriffs Association, and a litany of cops attacking the bill as though it were some radical departure.

It's really not. Texas departments are already required to gather racial profiling data at traffic stops. That's what makes some of the opposition hard to understand. This bill would fine tune the data collected to make it
more fair to officers.

For example, right now most departments lump all searches performed at traffic stops together for purposes of racial profiling reporting, but many searches officers are required to perform. For example, if someone is arrested for warrants or anything else, or if the car is impounded, it must be searched. It's not something the officer can choose not to do, and shouldn't count against them on the racial profiling report. It will, though, unless Sen. West's bill passes.

Similarly, police complained bitterly that traffic stops were being compared to census data, even though in many towns half the traffic or more came from out-of-towners passing through. West's bill would fix that by requiring departments to record whether the driver came from in or out of the jurisdiction, so that only in-jurisdiction driver data would be compared to the local census record. That way when University Park -- which is a mostly-white municipality surrounded en toto by the City of Dallas -- stops minority drivers passing through town, they won't be compared to the lily-white census numbers.

The police incentive to fix that stuff is big, so I thought for sure they'd go for Sen. West's bill on that alone. But there's another incentive for passing the law I'm surprised they ignore: If they kill the bill, it's not the case that Texas won't have a repository; Texas civil rights groups already compile most racial profiling reports statewide, and have become the
de facto central repository in the absence of one created by statute. If this bill passes, we'll rely on the new repository like everybody else, and there will be no fear that ACLU, NAACP, LULAC or the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition are somehow tainting the numbers. (We weren't, but there's a trust issue there with the cops that probably cannot be overcome.)

Toward the end of Wednesday's hearing, though, it finally hit me what was going on, confirmed for me later by a contentious conversation with a police union rep whose irrationality on the point betrayed his agenda: They WANT the data to be flawed. That way, they can loudly complain when their data comes out that it's unfair. They understand that the collection of racial profiling data is a tool to identify discriminatory policies and practices, and therefore want to find any way they can to discredit that tool and restrict its ability to perform its job.

This is a cynical, long-term approach. Cops know that reform movements come and go, but they're in it for the long haul. If racial profiling data can be discredited, they believe, they can ride out the possibility for reform for a few years longer, then kill the whole program later. It seems, then, more important
than ever for the future efficacy of Texas' data collection law that at least the part of West's bill fixing what data are collected pass this session.

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