Monday, March 12, 2001

Racial profiling scrutinized

City wants to get to the why of the problem

By Jane Prendergast
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Cincinnati officials say they want to be national leaders in developing a plan against racial profiling.

        They'll have to be, experts say: There's not much guidance out there.

        Hundreds of police departments nationwide have started tracking the races of drivers stopped by officers. They've compiled these statistics over the past two years in response to mounting public criticism that some officers treat minorities differently than they do white people.

   Hundreds of cities nationwide are collecting data on the races of drivers stopped by police. Among the efforts:
    • In Sacramento, Calif., officers started last summer filling out cards that include a driver's race, sex, age, whether anybody was ordered out of the car and why. Researchers with the University of Southern California analyze them. Police say it takes a minute to answer the questions.
    • Houston's 5,000 officers in August 1999 started inputting drivers' races, ages and sexes into cruiser computers.
    • Troopers throughout Washington state, collecting data since October 1999, are evaluated every three months based on supervisors' reviews of the data on traffic stops.
    • In Salt Lake City, officers must write a letter for each driver's ethnicity: A for Asian, B for African-American, H for Hispanic, I for American Indian or Alaskan native, M for Middle Eastern, P for Polynesian or Pacific Islander, W for white, Z for other and U for unknown.
        But many police officials and researchers say counting isn't enough, that knowing the numbers can't fix why it happens.

        “A car stop is the end result of a lot of things,” said Oakland, Calif., Police Capt. Ron Davis, a regional vice president of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives (NOBLE).

        “It's the end result of a list that starts with recruitment, hiring the right people, the agency's mission,” Capt. Davis said. “All those things come into play here. That's what we need to be talking about.”

        Some Cincinnati officials, including Police Chief Tom Streicher and city Safety Director Kent Ryan, want more than just traffic stop statistics to combat what residents, politicians and grass-roots civil rights groups say are regular incidents here of cops singling out people based on race.

        Chief Streicher and Mr. Ryan aren't wild about collecting only race data — they'll do it, they tell Cincinnati City Council members, but they'd rather do something more comprehensive.

        The chief says the new program has to get at what's in the hearts of his 1,000 officers.

        They've been talking to a University of Cincinnati professor for possible help. John Eck teaches police effectiveness, research methods and policy to graduate students in UC's criminal justice department.

        Mr. Eck said it's too soon to say what comprehensive changes may be possible here, but he brings a hefty police-analysis resume to the table.

        He's a former research director for the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF), a Washington think tank; former evaluation coordinator for Washington/Baltimore's High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area; and former consultant to the London and Royal Canadian Mounted police departments.

        Some other guidance may be on the way, too:

        • President Bush is considering establishing a national commission to study racial profiling, use of force and other issues, a plan backed by the International Association of Chiefs of Police.

        The panel would be similar to President Lyndon Johnson's 1967 Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice, which worked for 18 months and produced 200 recommendations, particularly about the segregation of police forces and improvements in training.

        • Researchers at PERF, the Washington think-tank, are finishing their federally funded project on bias-based policing, projected for release in mid-April. It will include specific recommendations in policy, training, accountability, community outreach and recruitment.

        The first suggestion: stop using the phrase “racial profiling.”

        The phrase is too limiting, researchers believe, and too easy to deny because chiefs usually can legitimately say that race is never the only factor in any situation.

        • The national group NOBLE says collecting race data has a confidence-instilling effect. Beyond that, it recommends eight steps to “blindfolding” officers against bias.

        Among them: stop using phrases such as “war on crime” and “zero tolerance” because they may contribute to a culture of intolerance and an “us-versus-them” mentality; and develop a comprehensive early warning system that tracks a number of categories relating to an officer's overall performance, including vehicle accidents and sick-leave abuse.

        Cincinnati City Councilman John Cranley is using some of this research work in his compilation of national ideas that he plans to give to other council members this week.

        The public is invited to a public hearing Wednesday night in Avondale, where council members will listen to citizens' concerns. They listened for four hours last week to community leaders.

        “I think that there are well-meaning officers out there that are making decisions based on stereotypes of which they're not even aware,” said Lorie Fridell, PERF's current director of research. “The underlying issue there is trust.”


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