Monday, May 18, 2009

Bill creating repository for traffic-stop data needs to move if it's going to pass

As the 81st Texas Legislature winds down, everyone around the capitol is busy surveying the terrain for the few, remaining bills among the 7,000+ filed that survived the carnage, and in doing so this morning I notice a good bill many years in the making: SB 1120 by West, which would reduce and standardize the amount of data gathered for so-called racial profiling reports at traffic stops and create a statewide central repository to gather and compile them. This senate bill is up in the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee hearing on Wednesday, and despite the late hour, I hope it can move quickly through the lower chamber to a successful denouement.

This important cleanup legislation fixes problems with traffic-stop data as the law currently requires it to be gathered and creates a more stringent requirement that it be reported annually. Dozens of agencies have simply ignored both the law and open records requests from the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition - a nonprofit that heretofore has served as an informal repository of racial profiling reports using the Public Information Act - for access to their local data.

The debate over racial profiling at traffic stops has changed a lot since I've been involved with the issue, entirely because of the 2001 law requiring data gathering at the departmental level. Before that, police administrators and union reps would boldly claim to anyone who would listen that there was no evidence of racial disparities at traffic stops and critics didn't know what they were talking about.

Then the numbers came out and the average disparity between races was well beyond statistically significant. Over time, as this new reality sunk in, the debate among Texas' law enforcement community (to judge by their interactions with activists pushing for reform) transformed from denial ("racial profiling never happens") to what IMO has been a more constructive if often contentious debate about the reasons for disparity. That's a subtle but important shift that occurred pretty rapidly because of the data gathering required in that 2001 statute. Quite a few departments also altered their policies on consent searches as a result of data reported under the statute, including Austin PD which moved to require written consent to search vehicles at traffic stops.

Today's debate, as a result, poses new questions that drafters of the 2001 law couldn't have foreseen, but which over time became apparent as experts from all sides parsed the resulting data. SB 1120 reduces and simplifies the amount of data officers must gather but makes the data points regarding searches more specific, parsing them in a way that will allow more probative, useful analysis for managers, supervisors, and those outside the agency who want to understand the sources of disparity, racial and otherwise, that crop up variously in routine traffic stop searches.

For example, by requiring that police record whether contraband is discovered as a result of the search, it's possible to assess a "hit rate" that measures the relative effectiveness of performing consent searches. Right now, the data required in state law doesn't include that critical metric, so everyone is left looking at the resulting data on "consent searches" without knowing how often the tactic worked. I don't know what the contraband data will say (though from departments that gathered that data in the past, I could hazard a guess). Without question, no matter what the overall trend, results among departments are still likely to vary widely. But I do know that the debate over racial profiling and 4th Amendment rights at traffic stops has been taken as far as it can go based on the 2001 law without the additions required in this bill.

The other key issue SB 1120 would resolve is compliance: A nonprofit pursuing open records requests at hundreds of departments statewide (just under 1,000 out of 2,500+ agencies registered with TCLEOSE), only has so much leverage to get agencies to produce the required reports. Plus, because they're viewed as reform advocates, some departments never accepted TCJC's de facto, semi-official role as keepers of Texas' racial profiling data, which may partially explain their lack of compliance. This bill hands the collection task over to a neutral arbiter at a state agency and gives them enforcement authority to insist by rule that the data be produced as the law requires.

The final House calendar with Senate bills will be published next Sunday, so there's not a lot of time. But this bill cleared a big hurdle by getting out of the Senate in one piece and the House would do well to seize the opportunity and pass SB 1120 while they have the chance.


Scott D said...

As a crime analyst I'll add my two cents: The logical place to be the keepers of the data would be Texas DPS. They already collect Texas data for the FBI's UCR program. It is my hope that the collection/submission requirements aren't made too onerous. Texas law enforcement agencies already have to report a significant amount of data every month to DPS on crimes (UCR & NIBRS), sexual assaults, family violence, etc. On the whole, DPS does a pretty good job of collecting and disseminating crime stats.

The only negative with DPS doing it would be any public perception that DPS was not fair and accurate in handling the data since they are also a law enforcement agency. The whole point of collecting this type of data is to move towards restoring public confidence in LE agencies on issues of racial bias in enforcement.

I also agree with your comment that the more important debate is not that a disparity exists, but the reason for the disparity. However, that issue is way too complex to be handled in a 30 second sound bite on the nightly news and hence will not likely get a reasoned examination all parties to this debate for years to come.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Scott D, as I read the bill, the reporting requirements will be no more rigorous than the annual racial profiling report submitted under current law to the City Council, etc. - it just will be done in a standardized format and also reported to TCLEOSE, as the statute is currently written. I wasn't involved in the bill negotiations and don't know why they didn't go with DPS. TCLEOSE wouldn't have been my first choice.

It's true it's sometimes hard to have a reasoned debate on these topics, but it's a little bit easier to do so when hard data/information exists instead of operating merely in a vacuum of accusations. IMO the addition of (even flawed) hard data moved the debate along substantially here toward more constructive terrain, but now that we've seen it play out over several years, it's clear it must be standardized and the definitions must be refined for the data to serve a meaningful, ongoing public policy use. That's what this bill does.

Anonymous said...

The DPS does not keep up to date on its data. how would we trust a organization that will not or cannot keep up with people that are released from jail or probation/parole, little else data that would allow people to investigate its practice of violating a citizen's civil rights?

DPS has to be the worst choice to hold such data. Too much corruption, and civil rights violations for them to be trusted at anything.

gravyrug said...

I know profiling goes on, racial and otherwise. I've been pulled over several times for being a long-haired, bearded white guy. It has gotten better since the original bill went through, though. I guess thinking about racial profiling made them think through other kinds as well. All progress on this issue is good.

Anonymous said...

No question, it will harm the effectiveness of local law enforcement. Police will become afraid to act against perpetrators of color, wondering if they might "look racist"; just as many under performing African-American employees do not get fired because employers are worried about EOC suits.

But what bothers me even more is it is another government database, as if their aren't enough. This is a step toward a totalitarian society.