Thursday, March 24, 2011

Central repository for TX racial profiling reports now online

Here's something cool: For the first time in a decade since Texas' passed its racial profiling statute, all the racial profiling reports from local agencies have been compiled in one place and put online. This is long overdue. For a number of years before the state created a central repository for this information, I helped analyze the data at the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, where Molly Totman performed yeoman's service to compile information on a nonprofit basis that really should have been a government function. Now, finally, thanks to a floor amendment to Sunset legislation by Sen. Royce West in the waning days of the 81st legislative session, the public can access this information in one spot online. Brilliant!

The formatting of the reports isn't the easiest to interpret and isn't always consistent from department to department, but there's a lot of data here. Often the most important racial disparities show up not in the proportion of driver stopped but in what happens after the driver has been pulled over: Take Austin PD, where black folks made up 12.4% of all traffic stops (roughly the same as their proportion of the population), but 22.3% of people searched at traffic stops.

For that matter, agencies exhibit widely disparate patterns in how they approach searches in general, particularly how frequently so-called "consent searches" are used. At the Austin PD, for example, just 5.7% of searches conducted were consent searches, while at Houston PD they made up 30.4%. At some agencies it's much higher. In Irving, a majority (55.8%) of searches were consent searches. When I have more time, I may look more closely at disparities in how frequently consent searches are used. Some departments seem to be pushing them pretty aggressively.

West's amendment also added a new datapoint - whether the officer new the race of the driver before they pulled them over - that appears to vary widely from department to department, for reasons I don't fully understand.

The reports would be a lot more probative if data on searches were correlated by race of the driver, particularly breaking out consent searches (i.e., searches where an officer has no reasonable suspicion to search and is required to ask permission). Then you're specifically analyzing circumstances where officers are exercising discretion, whereas the reporting now conflates categories in a way that makes it impossible to draw firm conclusions about whether disparities are structural or volitional.

One thing that having a state agency compile the reports brings to the forefront that was obvious when compiling the reports in years past: Some agencies aren't complying with the law, don't compile racial profiling data, or at least are unable to produce their required annual report upon request. By region, the compliance rate among departments required to report ranged from 68% in the Panhandle to 100% in Northeast Texas. All told, 383 agencies required to report didn't do so.

Maybe now that the data doesn't require hundreds of separate open records requests to compile (!), we'll see more academic interest in analyzing the data. This statute provides a lot of ground-level data about what officers are doing on the street that, while initially gathered for purposes of assessing racial profiling, implicates quite a few pressing Fourth Amendment questions and other non-race related issues as well. Texans spend a lot money on law enforcement, and these reports provide lots of raw, department-level information for analyzing police practices that wouldn't otherwise exist.

These reports were always meant for locals to be able to easily access data on traffic stops by their local law-enforcement agencies, so it's gratifying that, for the first time, they're available to everyone instead of just to a few insiders who took the time to hunt for the information.


Anonymous said...

I think that having this data available online is great. It lets the people of the State to see what is going on with their Law Enforcement.
The Agencies that are in compliance will finally get to set themselves away from the ones that do not.
Contrary to popular belief everyone in Law Enforcement is not predjudiced, a race hater, etc.
This will reduce the number of people crying about racial issues.

Anonymous said...

One thing that always seems to be assumed is that when stats show a disproportioned number of stops, searches or arrests of a certain group - the officers are all white and are targeting these other groups. There are many minority officers which target their own racial groups because it will not raise a flag. The statistics need to be broken down by the race of the stopping officer.

Anonymous said...

The report could be skewed in the fact that some Agencies have a proactive approach to enforcement.

The number of consent searches clearly defines that a person has given their consent to having the vehicle searched.

I would focus more on the "probable cause" searches to find out what the circumstances were.

Either way...having this data will show what some Officers and Agencies are doing.