Tuesday, March 08, 2005

All sides within spitting distance on racial profiling agreement

The Houston police chief wants additional racial profiling data gathered to clarify the meaning of observed disparities, AP reported this morning.
He also said the state should require all police agencies to collect data on traffic stops whether or not a ticket is issued. The 2001 racial profiling law requires law enforcement officials to collect data on traffic stops resulting in traffic citations or arrests.

"There are a lot of variables, and we're continuously fighting with the data to try and make some sense of it," [Chief Harold] Hurtt said.

Meanwhile, Grits reported Sunday about a new study by the University of North Texas of five Dallas-area police departments, where academics sympathetic to the police also called for additional data elements to be gathered to clarify what the reports mean.

What those stories don't say is that civil rights groups want essentially the same thing, with only minor differences in emphasis which will be hashed out in final negotiations at the Lege. All of the interested parties are within spitting distance of one another's positions, making it very likely that racial profiling cleanup legislation will pass this session. (Sen. Royce West will file the legislation this week.)

In addition, all sides also want a new central repository to gather and analyze the data. Law enforcement wants it because civil rights groups have been gathering reports and compiling statewide numbers themselves. They think those reports aren't "neutral" (though rarely does a department dispute the reported numbers), and would prefer somebody who will spin the data their way. By contrast, civil right groups wanted a central repository (and most of these new data elements) four years ago, and the tactic of compilng an independent report was a mere fallback position -- we'd prefer the state gather and publicly maintain the data. Now that proposal is almost non-controversial.

So what new data needs to be collected to make better sense of the racial profiling numbers? There are a few things:
  • Contraband hit rates from searches: Most departments don't gather data on how often contraband is found during searches at traffic stops. (The Baron would be happy about this one.)
  • Discretionary vs. Non-discretionary searches: Search data will be more meaningful if non-discretionary searches (searches incident to arrest, inventory searches of impounded vehicles, etc.) broken out so that "consent searches" can be isolated both by race and by whether contraband was found.
  • All stops: The law currently only requires data collection at citation stops, excluding stops with written or verbal warnings or where, for whatever reason, no ticket was issued. That skews the data.
  • In/out jurisdiction: It will help calculate a "baseline" for comparing local traffic stops if police identify whether each driver lives in the jurisdiction. That way, census or other baseline data may be compared apples-to-apples to stops of in-jurisdiction residents.
The creation of a central repository and collection of these additional data elements will go a long way toward making racial profiling data more useful and widely accepted as valid. Currently, Texas racial profiling data is not detailed enough to draw hard conclusions in good faith about whether or not profiling is occurring, even in the face of large disparties in how folks are treated. (I've argued that disparties in search practices between departments are more significant than racial disparities within any one department.) The new data elements will let police, researchers, local governing bodies and the public parse the numbers more closely. Once we have that information, analysts can narrowly hone in on circumstances where officers have more discretion, carving out the stuff they're required to do by law, like searching someone when they're arrested.

Four years ago Texas law enforcement interests thought they were very clever to fight these additional data elements' inclusion in racial profiling legislation. And they were especially proud of themselves for ensuring that departments only filed reports locally, not with the state. Now, they've turned 180 degrees -- police want more and better data and the central repository they opposed when the bill first passed.

It's a funny ol' world.

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