Sunday, February 18, 2001

Officials ponder how to measure racial profiling

By Jane Prendergast
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Cincinnati officials will start talking this week about a plan to measure racial profiling in a way they hope will produce more than just numbers.

        The new chairman of City Council's law committee, John Cranley, plans to propose that outside statisticians be used. They could develop the best way, he said, to count all traffic stops made by Cincinnati officers and make sure the numbers will be analyzed objectively.

        Simply counting black drivers and white drivers, Mr. Cranley said, will only result in numbers without context and could leave ev eryone from African-American community leaders to officials and police officers angry with the outcome.

        “Everyone agrees that there is racial tension right now,” he said. “And I believe that the leaders of our city need to take that on.”

        The Harvard-educated lawyer with a master's degree in theological studies pledged during a council session last week to move the issue off the committee's back burner. At Tuesday's committee meeting, he said, he hopes to at least outline the next steps and suggest a timetable.

        He plans to try to enlist groups including the NAACP, the Fraternal Order of Police and the Sentinels to help the committee work out a plan he calls “civil, inclusive and thoughtful.”

        “I don't want this to last too long,” Mr. Cranley said. “At some point, we've got to stop debating and see what we're going to do.”

        Members began discussing racial profiling after the Nov. 7 death of Roger Owensby Jr., an African-American man who was asphyxiated in police custody after his arrest in a Roselawn gas station parking lot. Two officers face criminal indictments for the death.

        But the proposed ordinance has not moved since, prompting Councilwoman Alicia Reece to urge that the matter be dealt with immediately. The FOP executive board released a statement last week saying the union would consider a compromise on data collection as long as the system was fair and didn't take too much officer time.

        Council's actions come as the American Civil Liberties Union, local lawyer Ken Lawson and others continue to prepare a lawsuit against the city that will allege officers practice racial profiling. They want a counting system to track the alleged problem, as well as changes in training and policy.

        Eight complaints alleging racial profiling have been filed with the city's Office of Municipal Investigation since Jan. 1, 2000, when the agency started tracking them in a separate category. While four were filed in all of last year, four already have been filed in 2001 — an increase probably at least partly attributable to the significant amount of media attention the subject now gets, said OMI Director Kimberlee Gray.

        “People now come in and say, "I think this is racial profiling,'” she said. “Whereas before, they didn't call it that.”

        Mr. Cranley discussed his ideas for three hours Friday with Safety Director Kent Ryan and Chief Tom Streicher. Their concerns about collecting data stem, in part, from problems experienced in other cities.

        For one, new census data aren't due out till next month. So population numbers used now by cities are 10 years old. And those data reveal only the race breakdowns of a city's residents, not its driving population.

        When San Jose released its race counts of almost 100,000 drivers stopped between June 1999 and June 2000, the numbers showed 41 percent were Hispanic (compared with 31 percent of the residential population); 7 percent were African-American (4.5 percent); 16 percent were Asian (21 percent); and 32 percent were white (43 percent).

        The statistics did show some residents were stopped disproportionately to their representation in the overall population, angering the city's minority community. But others questioned their validity because of the counting system.

        Some researchers have stood on street corners and tracked the races of actual drivers to measure an area's driving population.

        Cincinnati officials aren't suggesting that yet. But they want to avoid creating a process that ends without definitive answers.

        “The question is, "If we count, what are we going to do with that information?'” Mr. Cranley said. “We have to have a plan.”

Investigations continue in 7 profiling complaints

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