Sunday, March 06, 2005

UNT Academics: Centralize, Standardize Racial Profiling Data

Another study has reached a similar conclusion: Texas' racial profiling law needs to be tweaked for the data collected to be more useful as a diagnostic tool.

A group of academics from the Univeristy of North Texas at Dallas have studied racial profiling data from Dallas area agencies and concluded that new data elements need to be collected to accurately measure racial profiling, the Dallas Morning News reports. I've got a copy of the study, but I can't find the full thing online.

Rather than analyze racial profiling data gathered under the law, UNT researchers got five Dallas-area police departments to use a special scantron form they created to gather data for a two-month pilot. So the numbers they're looking at aren't the same as those analyzed from officers' annual reports required under the law.

Still, they came to many similar conclusions to a report released recently by Texas civil rights groups. UNT's researchers think a new central repository for agency data should be created, that data collection and reporting methods should be standardized, and that additional data elements should be gathered in order to make the data more useful. For the most part, they even want the same additional data elements. So I agree with a great deal of the study's findings.

I'm not sure I'm equally comfortable, though, with their recommendation to "Develop the Institute on Race, Crime and Justice at the University of North Texas at Dallas as a statewide repository for racial profiling data and analysis of all motor vehicle stops in Texas." In other words, THEY want to be the central repository.

Don't get me wrong. As long as all the data is public and folks like those of us in the civil rights movement can access it and do our own analyses, in the end I don't care who gathers and stores it.

I'm troubled and a bit confused, though, by the academics' belief that gathering data has "made the issue of racial profiling muddled and even more controversial." I don't agree
that invigorating the debate with evidence, even incomplete evidence, has been harmful.

For starters, their position ignores the fact that before data was gathered, law enforcement representatives routinely denied any disparity existed at all in who was stopped and searched. Now, you almost never hear those blanket denials. Everyone knows minorities are stopped and searched more often, and the debate is now about why. In that sense, the existence of hard data has definitely contributed to civility by making such inarguably incorrect but previously common claims impermissible. That has created space to talk more plainly about the real sources of disparities, some of which are the result of officers' discretion and some of which aren't -- how many searches occur "incident to arrest," when an officer is required to search? How many consent searches resulted in contraband? Those are important questions, and we have reached them because of the debate over the meaning of agency racial profiling reports.

That's not the study authors' view, though. They go on further in this vein:
Rather than clarifying the facts and identifying some common ground of discourse, the data collection and dissemination process that has occurred since the new law passed seems to have inflamed rather than lessen passions, and has served to place patrol officers and police administrators squarely in within the crosshairs of both camps.
(The other "camp," they're referring to, are those who "argue that minorities are simply more likely to commit offenses that lead to traffic stops and searches." There's a few right-wing-think-tank-types who argue that, but in the political realm, it's mostly the police themselves, not some external "camp," who make those arguments.)

Having been in the thick of these issues before and after the law passed, I can honestly say their description does not match my experience at all. I've sat through countless he-said-she-said-finger-pointing sessions between community leaders and police in the last decade, and I'm sure I'm speaking for a lot of police and community leaders, too, when I say it becomes repetitive, boring, and unconstructive after a time. Data collection has introduced a new, evidence-based dimension to the debate that it never had before. It's too bad the report authors confuse invigorating the discussion with new facts with making it less constructive.

In years past, when someone in the community would accuse officers of racial profiling, the local police chief or officers union would respond by claiming more minorities were criminals or that community leaders hated cops, then everybody would get angry and flail about with little but futile fulminations ever resulting, at least in the absence of expensive, time consuming, and divisive litigation. Now, when a community leaders think racial profiling is happening, they can look at the data to see how big is the actual disparity. And once an accusation is made, the department can provide additional, clarifying information to justify or at least better explain the data, a lot of which will be required to be reported anyway if the Legislature standardizes and centralizes racial profiling data reporting.

The report also recommends that agencies NOT report their data to their local governing bodies! That seems like a non-starter. Those folks want and need to know what's happening in their department.

We're just at the beginning of a substantive societal debate over the meaning of racial disparities in the criminal justice system, and better tools are needed to analyze racial profiling data to narrowly focus on officer discretion. Certainly, too, that debate will be better informed when more and better data are collected. But it'd be wrong to underestimate the importance or substance of what's gone on so far.

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