Sunday, September 7, 2003

Police race data filed and forgotten

System designed to study profiling

By Jane Prendergast
The Cincinnati Enquirer

More than two years' worth of demographic information collected by Cincinnati police on drivers they pull over is gathering dust instead of clearing the air about how officers interact with minority citizens.

Accused of singling out black drivers, Cincinnati officers began filling out contact cards in May 2001 as a way to measure whether officers stopped drivers based on race. Officers have filled out more than 50,000 contact cards since then, but there's been no analysis of that information.

Thousands of the completed cards from 2002 are not even being put into a database because officials wanted to focus on 2003 cards. Officers check boxes on the cards that record such things as the race, gender and age of drivers and passengers in the cars they stop.

Officials blame the delay on poor initial data collection by officers, slow and inaccurate data entry and inadequate police computers.

"We're extremely concerned about that," said Juleana Frierson, chief of staff of the Black United Front, the group that sued Cincinnati police alleging poor treatment of black people. "Frankly, if there hasn't been any compilation of this, that's a huge problem."

But many police supervisors are indifferent to how long the analysis takes, including Chief Tom Streicher, who says results won't accurately reflect what happens on the streets anyway.

Riots sparked effort

The decision to collect the information came just a month after the city's worst race riots in three decades. City Council members touted the contact cards as a way to help measure how police interacted with black citizens.

Councilman John Cranley, who originally pushed the racial-profiling issue, said the cards have gotten absorbed into the Collaborative Agreement, a deal struck in April 2002 by the city, the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio and the Cincinnati Black United Front.

That agreement also ended the Black United Front's federal lawsuit that alleged Cincinnati police had treated black people poorly for decades. The parties are still hammering out the various parts of the police-community relations agreement, which called for things like police officers to focus more on solving problems.

Al Overson, a 68-year-old retired city health department worker, who testified before Cranley's committee in 2001 about racial profiling, said he never expected much to come of the data collection or resulting research.

"You hear stories, you hear people talking about it - especially young black men," he said. "It hasn't happened to me since, but I think about it frequently. I'm always quite aware of my surroundings."

City Manager Valerie Lemmie said any conclusions reached by John Eck, the University of Cincinnati professor doing the analysis into the first six months of the data collection, is likely moot because the data is 2 years old. Eck says the analysis should be finished by the end of September.

Dr. Calvert Smith, president of the Cincinnati branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said he thinks the lack of analysis is illustrative of a "leadership vacuum" at City Hall.

"We're going to mess around, and mess around, and mess around," he said, "until there is another major explosion."

David Harris, a University of Toledo professorwhohas spent years researching racial profiling, said being accurate is better than being quick. But if the research takes too long, the lack of results can lead citizens to think the city is either apathetic or covering up something, he said.

"At some point, after 21/2 years, you start to wonder," Harris said. "And just the wondering is a problem because it undermines the police department's credibility."

Promise of things to come

Eck met with the collaborative partners this summer to explain the delay.

"One of the major issues that he raised was that the information he got had to be redone," said Al Gerhardstein, an attorney involved with the collaborative. "It's not like it's off the map. It's very important to all of us."

But there's another wrinkle in analyzing the information. Collaborative partners are still trying to choose a company from which the city will buy a new multimillion-dollar computer system. The computer system was mandated by the collaborative and a companion agreement signed with the U.S. Department of Justice.

The computer will track many other things as well, including officer discipline and citizen complaints. Scott Greenwood, ACLU general counsel, said he couldn't elaborate on the negotiations except to say that they expect to choose that company soon.

When the system goes online, officers will start collecting the traffic stop data differently.

Greenwood said he never thought the data being collected now would be particularly meaningful. He said City Council ordered the collection, at least in part, in an unsuccessful attempt to avoid the federal lawsuit.

Cranley said that even without the analysis, the cards keep a record of police encounters.

"They're being used right now for a lot of good," he said. "From my point of view, they keep the public informed about what their police are doing."

Debate not new

Debate over racial profiling has bubbled up repeatedly in recent years, galvanized most recently by the 2000 death of Roger Owensby Jrwho died in police custody. Police said they chased him because he had previously ran from officers during a drug investigation. His family and African-American activists said officers singled him out because he was black.

The incident prompted local lawyers to begin preparing the lawsuit. The collaborative agreement it spawned was hailed as a historic method for improving police-community relations.

At the same time, a companion Justice Department agreement ended a yearlong federal investigation of the police department, something Mayor Charlie Luken invited after the riots. That deal includes more concrete policy reforms on issues including police use of force, chemical irritant, police dogs and foot pursuits.

By the time both agreements were signed in April 2002, officers already had been filling out contact cards for nearly a year.

Chief Streicher acknowledged that collecting race data might pick out glaring problems with a small number of officers, but not show systemic racism in the ranks. An officer found to have profiled based on race would face discipline, he said.

"Each and every incident has to be weighed and evaluated on the incident itself," the chief said. "But just the numbers themselves? They don't prove anything."

That view is short-sighted, Harris said.

"Everyone who's been involved in this has an interest in getting this done," he said. "Because this is part of the full picture of building trust between citizens and police."

Results elsewhere

Harris, who is researching his second book on the topic, said in cities like Chicago and Detroit, the process of trying to measure racial profiling sparked broader conversations about cultural awareness and racial issues that became even more important in some cases than the data collecting itself.

"In some of these places, the study didn't tell a heckuva lot," Harris said. "But it's paying these unexpected dividends."

Fraternal Order of Police President Roger Webster is a little more interested in the analysis than Streicher: Webster believes the analysis will prove officers don't target people because of their skin color.

"It's another one of these processes where everyone jumped and said: 'This is something we should do,' " Webster said. "It's just one of the processes that's taking forever."

Reporter Greg Korte contributed to this report.


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