Monday, April 16, 2007

Traffic stop info shines light on police searches; data needs tweaking for maximum benefit

Texas' racial profiling data collection law is now six years old, and it's time to revamp the law to make the data gathered more accurate and uniform across agencies, says the bill's original author Royce West. His SB 1448 is similar or identical (I didn't see a significant difference, but didn't look closely) to legislation passed out of the Senate in 2005. SB 1448 would finally regularize reporting of racial profiling and traffic stop data across departments and make it a lot more useful to police supervisors, local governments, researchers and the public.

Molly Totman of the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, who analyzes data from hundreds of Texas police departments for that organization every year, forwarded me a fact sheet this afternoon explaining what's in the bill and why the legislation is needed, and I thought I'd just post that information here:
Texas Should Create a Statewide Repository for Racial Profiling Reports to Oversee Compliance and Address Data Issues


Under Texas’ racial profiling law (S.B. 1074, passed in 2001), each Texas law enforcement agency is required to annually create a report on the race of individuals they stop and search, and then submit that report to their local governing body.

No central repository was written into the law to collect and analyze the data on a statewide level.

Advocacy groups – who are currently the only source of cross-agency monitoring – have found that some agencies aren’t properly reporting all of the required data elements, while others aren’t collecting or reporting ANY data at all.

Non-compliance with the law prevents local community members and officials from knowing what’s truly going on at traffic stops in their areas. It also prevents agencies from being able to compare their data to other agencies’ data to determine if there are improvements to be made, or if there are practices they should be implementing to best allocate officer resources and increase public safety.

It is no longer excusable that some agencies continue to comply with the racial profiling law year in and year out, while others never do.

Solution: Support S.B. 1448 by Senator West

Texas law enforcement agencies should be required to submit their reports to an independent, neutral, centralized repository.

A repository entity would be able to ensure that law enforcement agencies are complying with the data collection and reporting requirements of the law.

A repository entity would be able to implement a standardized reporting format, which would clarify exactly what data elements need to be reported (using uniform definitions).

A repository entity would be able to produce reports that analyze data for statewide trends, which would help agencies identify ineffective police practices and implement best practices.

A repository would be able to store the annual reports so that interested members of the public could contact the repository for information rather than having to burden agencies with open records requests (and the legal expenses and administrative costs that accompany them).

Repository staff would be able to assist officers with technical issues and help members of the public understand the data analysis.

Law enforcement, the public, and our policy-makers need a comprehensive picture of what is happening at Texas traffic stops to create better community policing models. A repository will streamline reporting procedures and give the state access to a more useful, reliable, and detailed set of racial profiling data.
We've learned a lot from this data over the years since police began to collect it. Before departments gathered racial profiling data in Texas, it was common for police to claim there were not disparities in how many minorities received tickets compared to white people, or how often they were subjected to searches. The existence of those disparities has been confirmed by the data once and for all, and now the debate has shifted to the CAUSE of the disparities and how to reduce them. That change alone to me was worth the price of admission, inching us one step closer to admitting and dealing with race in law enforcement in a more honest way.

But a funny thing happened along the way in that debate - it turned out oversearching in Texas isn't only about race. Indeed, often racial disparities aren't the biggest ones. Some departments have a policy of searching more often at traffic stops generally in ways that affect everyone, white folks included. As I wrote based on Molly's report two years ago, in
My hometown of Tyler, for example in Northeast Texas, [police] searched blacks 2.6 times more than whites, compared to the town of Longview down the road which searched blacks 2.7 times more often. Sounds pretty similar, right? Well, check out the numbers as a percentage of traffic stops:

How many Tyler/Longview drivers were searched
as a percentage of local traffic stops by race




Tyler PD




Longview PD




So once again, while both department's search patterns exhibit racial disparties, as a percentage of total stops, Longview is engaging in MANY more unnecessary searches than the Tyler PD. Indeed, whether a department has a policy of oversearching is a more significant factor than race: a white driver in Longview is more than twice as likely to be searched at a traffic stop as a black driver in Tyler.

To me, the debate over racial profiling isn't about accusing cops of racism, it's about treating people fairly and giving the public and departments tools to measure police practices to see if they're fair. These stats show that disparate treatment at traffic stops is about more than just race -- it's about documenting police practices that are eroding the Fourth Amendment for everybody.
Some of the changes in the law would allow law enforcement to drill down into these data deeper to determine whether departments that search more often gain any law enforcement benefit from the practice - particularly whether contraband is found during searches. This data gives police supervisors more information about what's going on at traffic stops and the productivity of search tactics than they've ever had before - regardless of race - and obviously from the statistics above departments differ widely in how often consent searches are used.

Last session the same bill had trouble in the House when it was assigned to House Urban Affairs toward the end of the legislative session and then-Chairman Robert Talton refused to give the bill a hearing. This session that committee is chaired by Houston Democrat Kevin Bailey, so perhaps that switch will give the legislation enough extra momentum to pass if it makes it over to from the Senate in time.


Anonymous said...

All too often Police work is about making sure there is a lot of crime so the public will fund big fat budgets for the Police Department. That is why when you are a victim of crime, there is a lot of paperwork but nothing is really done to catch the bad guys. That is why there are so many victimless crimes.

Keeping detailed accurate statistics about traffic stops is a small step in the right direction to bring Police work back toward protecting public safety and away from simply perpetuating the stream funds for "law enforcement".

Thanks to everyone that works so hard to bring these problems to light and offer solutions.

Anonymous said...

I'm first of all amazed that there are not more comments on this issue! I'm AAF from Longview,TX and have been pulled over and searched myself. Several years ago the officers claimed my car "fit the description" of a drug dealer's vehicle. I had no tickets or warrants nor had committed any traffic offences.I had just come from shopping in the local mall. It was Christmas time that year and the officers went into my trunk, ripped up all my gifts and then said laughing " You can go,we didn't find anything"!The fun part is my father was also a police officer they worked with for many years and they knew who I was! I believe this was a strong message being sent about those who will complain. If those cities have nothing to hide, why are they not reporting the data? When does driving an AA driving a car become a criminal offense? I'm more afraid of these officers than a bank robber! Who is policing the police?