Sunday, January 14, 2001

Statistics just one aspect of profiling

No one knows how to fairly interpret data on traffic stops

By Justin Pritchard
The Associated Press

        Two years ago, no police force in the nation kept sufficiently detailed records of traffic stops to tell whether officers were targeting minority drivers. Today almost half the 50 biggest cities and hundreds of smaller towns keep and analyze such records.

        Early results back up what had long been suspected — that blacks and Hispanics are more likely to be pulled over than whites. Police defend their practices as professional, calculated crime-stopping. Minority advocates charge bias. Public opinion polls show most Americans believe so-called racial profiling is a widespread wrong.

        Yet even with all the number crunching, no one — not the courts, not police, not civil rights groups — knows precisely what the statistics show or what to do with them. That's because there is no agreement about what racial profiling looks like on paper, or how to measure it.

        Suppose blacks make up 15 percent of a city's population but 20 percent of the traffic stops — is that profiling? What about 30 percent?

        And what about searches — potentially humiliating encounters experienced more often by black- and brown-skinned drivers. Is it profiling if police search black drivers' cars three times more often than whites'?

        Advocates on all sides had hoped cold, hard facts would settle anecdotal accusations of profiling once and for all.

        The truth, however, like race itself in the United States, is beyond simple black and white.

        “That is the new problem of racial profiling,” says Capt. Ronald Davis, an Oakland, Calif., officer and vice president of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives.

        “I think it's pretty evident that it does exist,” Mr. Davis says. “The next question that has to be answered is what does the data mean and what do you do with it?”

        These questions demand attention because a flood of information is on the way.

        Some 400 of the nation's 19,000 law enforcement agencies are studying racial profiling, from tiny police departments to huge federal bureaucracies, some aided by sophisticated computer databases. Most are tracking stops voluntarily, though the New Jersey Highway Patrol and departments in Los Angeles and Highland Park, Ill., collect data under court order.

        The Justice Department has pushed police to begin gathering the information.

        “We have found that when such records are maintained, it tends to clear the air somewhat,” Bill Lann Lee, outgoing assistant attorney general for civil rights, said at a meeting of the American Association of Law Schools last year. “(Police) then know what, in fact, is happening.”

        Officers more often find themselves wrestling with questions that not even professional statisticians have resolved.

        “It's the most perplexing question, how to analyze the data once you've collected it,” says Deborah Ramirez, a law professor at Boston's Northeastern University enlisted by the Justice Department to recommend national data-collection standards.

        And with no formula or precedent or even guidelines, police and citizens can draw very different conclusions from the same set of information. Consider the case of Michael McBride.

        One Tuesday night in March 1999, Mr. McBride, wearing jeans and a T-shirt, was driving his 1979 Datsun down a neighborhood street in San Jose, Calif., when he spotted a patrol car traveling in the opposite direction. As the cruiser rolled past, he noticed the two officers inside looking him over.

        Moments later, the officers stopped his car and said he'd been swerving.

        They handcuffed Mr. McBride, a youth minister with no criminal record, and searched his car for contraband. They found only Bibles.

        Then, in what he describes as the most degrading experience of all, one officer turned the search on Mr. McBride.

        “He reached in between my legs and grabbed my groin,” Mr. McBride says. “This is the first time I've been roughed up like this.”

        Mr. McBride says it was the 10th time he'd been stopped by police.

        “If I was a white person driving down that street, I don't believe they would have made a U-turn,” says Mr. McBride, now 25.

        Eventually, police released him without charges. But he lodged charges in the court of public opinion.

        Mr. McBride's allegations of profiling sounded too familiar to San Jose minority groups, who publicly criticized the police. An internal review found no wrongdoing, but Chief William Lansdowne decided San Jose would become the first city in the nation to find out if its officers were targeting minorities for traffic stops.

        His decision earned San Jose praise as a model of progressive policing. But last year, as the department began to release its traffic stop numbers, civil rights groups were alarmed by the department's analysis. The fallout shows how fraught with complexity profiling can be.

        In the year ending June 2000, San Jose police stopped almost 100,000 drivers. Here's what the numbers showed:

        • Hispanics, who made up 31 percent of the city's population, as tallied in the 1990 Census, accounted for 41 percent of those pulled over.

        • Blacks — 4.5 percent of population, 7 percent of stops.

        • Whites, 43 percent of population, 32 percent of stops.

        • Asians, 21 percent of population, 16 percent of stops.

        The statistics don't lie to minority advocates: police stop blacks and Hispanics in disproportionate numbers.

        Nor do the statistics lie to Chief Lansdowne: His officers stop members of all racial groups without targeting minorities.

        “We think the numbers right now are with the norm for us as a city,” Chief Lansdowne says. “There's a logical explanation.... Nobody can tell us we're right, nor can anybody tell us we're wrong.”

        Chief Lansdowne explains that San Jose police are assigned to their beats by a computer, which is fed city crime statistics. Officers therefore patrol crime-prone neighborhoods, which typically have denser minority populations.

        Among the criticisms of the police statistics was their failure to reflect how many searches followed traffic stops. The American Civil Liberties Union chided the department for this blind spot, contending that minorities are routinely harassed after they're pulled over.

        Chief Lansdowne says he wants to track searches. With no model to follow, he says, learning how best to collect and analyze data is an evolving process.

        “Both sides have a tendency to look at the issue and be defensive,” Chief Lansdowne says. “I think we need to look beyond that.”

        The profiling picture has other holes. Police are using 10-year-old population data, woefully outdated for a city as racially and ethnically dynamic as San Jose.

        Data from the 2000 Census, to be released in March, won't necessarily help. The census measures who lives in a city, not who drives there. Poorer residents, who tend to be minorities, are less likely to own cars — so the ratio of minority drivers to white drivers is even smaller than census numbers suggest.

        To learn who's on the road, researchers must stand on corners and count faces — something racial profiling researcher John Lamberth has done in areas outside Philadelphia and Detroit.

        It takes 800 man-hours to get a good measure of the driving population — labor-intensive work, he concedes, but absolutely necessary.

        “One of the problems you run into, when you do it the way San Jose did (using residential populations, not driving populations), you end up with the police department saying that we're not profiling and the community saying there is,” says Mr. Lamberth, a psychology professor at Temple University in Philadelphia. “And nothing has really been settled.”

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