Thursday, October 13, 2016

Disparities in Austin police use of force too large to explain by crime rates

Though statistical analysis cannot prove racial animus by law enforcement, researchers emphasized, it's also true that crime rates alone cannot explain large disparities in how often Austin police use force against minorities compared to white people, according to a new study using the most detailed metrics yet available to study the issue. See coverage from the Guardian and the Austin Statesman. The Guardian yesterday reported that:
even controlling for crime rates, income and education levels, and rates of home ownership, black and Hispanic neighborhoods in [Austin] still see a slightly higher number of use of force incidents, the new analysis found. Every 1% increase in the proportion of black residents in a neighborhood led to a 2.6% increase in use of force incidents, according to the analysis.
Moreover, they reported:
In a highly segregated city such as Austin, that increase actually looks much larger when you apply it to the neighborhood level. Virtually all the neighborhoods on the city’s west side are less than 5% black, while many on the east side are closer to 60% black. Using the report’s findings, that could mean an increase in use of force of more than 140% from a typical white neighborhood to a typical black one after controlling for other variables.
Statistical analyses such as this, for a variety of reasons, cannot definitively prove intentional discrimination, though to Grits' mind these data come closer than most attempts I've seen. Continued the Statesman:
The next step is to combine data about police use of force with community surveys to get a clearer picture of how police activity affects community attitudes. However, that is expensive and will require grant funding.
The Center of Policing Equity does not take money from police departments.
"Our hope is that we help find the grant funding to do this," Acevedo said. "Just by doing the deep dive sends a message that we care about what people think, what their feelings are and what the perceptions are and what the reality are important to us."
In future years, this will come to be non-controversial. Before Texas' racial profiling data collection bill passed in 2001, for example, it was common for law enforcement to claim that racial disparities in stops and search patterns simply did not exist, responding to all allegations of differential treatment with blanket denials that could not be proven nor dis-proven. Now, we know for certain black Texans are stopped at greater rates than they populate the driver pool, and that after the stop they're more likely to be searched and arrested, frequently for outstanding traffic warrants or other low-level offenses which landed them into what amounts to a debtors-prison situation. So the debate has moved on to WHY that happens instead of whether it does.

Debates around use of force are overdue for the same transformation. The claim that high crime rates among black folks justify using force against them more often has been made so often - in the face of a complete absence of evidence either way - that it will take a while for the truth of disparate outcomes to sink in. But the ability to base the discussion on hard facts rather than supposition is an important step forward.

As this blog has maintained for years, on a variety of issues, one cannot manage what one cannot measure.


Eagle said...

It would be interesting to see how officers are assigned in Austin, geographically. Do officers only work on the West side, or only on the East side, for example? If so, what would the use of force rates look like if the officers changed sides of town? Impractical and impossible to control for other factors, but would the stats for each area move towards the average of the two sides of town if officers were routinely rotated between districts?

Anonymous said...

The parameters of patrol districts are usually designed based on the average incidents of calls in the area. More calls in an area means a smaller geographic district to be worked by that officer. But it can also mean the area is more likely to have increased interaction between police and civilians. In lower call areas, the department can only increase the patrol district size to a certain size before officer response time is affected. The issues from both sides of this concern need to be measured, not just how often police use force. If the force is justified because of use of force, or threat of use of force, against the officer or others, the measurement of police use of force by itself is almost meaningless.

Anonymous said...

Austin PD used Restore Rundberg grant funding for "community surveys to get a clearer picture of how police activity affects community attitudes" in a high-crime, high-minority area in north Austin.

Grant and city funded police activities in the area included zero-tolerance enforcement roughly Oct 2012 to April 2014. They then switched to "mobile walking beats", a squad of officers walking around talking to people, but not making arrests or citations, roughly April 2014 to Sept 2016.

Those dates don't match this studies 2014 and 2015 annual analysis, but it seems like the same methodology could be applied to those time frames.

There seem to have been two different community survey instruments, one conducted by a UT staff person, also funded out of the grant, at three time points 2014-2016, and one ongoing by the walking beat officers. (That is, there is no baseline survey.) As far as I can tell, neither of those data sets are publicly available.

Lisa Hinely

Anonymous said...

Austin police allow people to smoke pot out in the open so why would they have any issues????? It's all bs. I'm sick of people breaking the law and the police getting in trouble for enforcing it. No enforcement; arrests and skirmishes go down, the numbers make it look like crime is down when its really not and their liberal crap programs get more tax payer funding.