Wednesday, September 10, 2003

50,000 white cards, no good answers

Denise Amos

Since police started collecting data on traffic stops in 2001, the police records offices downtown have been filling up with drab metal file cabinets and cardboard file boxes.

Inside the boxes and drawers are an estimated 50,000 white cards, filed by date, of police traffic stops. Eight workers, four in two shifts, type info from the cards into a computer database. But hardly anyone consults it.

A University of Cincinnati professor hired to analyze the first six months of data has said he'll finish that by the end of September. But his findings will be two years old.

Meanwhile, city officials, police, and those who claim police were stopping drivers because they are black, are all trying to decide what to do with the cards. Do they ditch them and try for different data, or do they make do?

I went to see for myself what was in some of those 50,000 cards.

Somebody ought to read them.

I examined closely two days' of data - March 19, 2003, and Aug. 21, 2003. Dates picked at random.

I wasn't trying to draw conclusions about trends in police-community contacts, but to see if there is enough data to even ask the right questions about why police made the stops.

The cards are public information, so I asked what I thought a member of the public would ask: Do police stop more blacks than is fair?

Judging from the two days: No.

Again, that's not the definitive answer. We need to know more.

About half the stops involved blacks and half whites. Blacks make up 43 percent of Cincinnati's population.

There were 88 cards filed for March 19 and 113 cards filed for Aug. 21, for a total of 201 cards.

On March 19, a majority of the police encounters - 61 - involved blacks; 27 involved whites. On Aug. 21, most of the recorded encounters - 69 out of the 113 - were with whites; 44 were with blacks.

Among the white drivers who were stopped, nearly all were for speeding. A handful of drivers were ticketed for other moving violations or for expired plates or tags.

There was a greater variety of causes listed for stops of black drivers, including the only stops for excessive noise (eight), and several stops for broken rearview mirrors and tail lights.

Anita Beasely of Mount Airy was stopped and warned about a broken headlight in April. She said the neighborhood officer did not stop her because of her race.

"He wasn't mean or anything," she said. "I could have gotten a ticket if I went somewhere else."

Twenty of the 201 drivers were searched or frisked; all but one were African-American.

The one white man who was searched had an underage black female in his car. He was ticketed for changing lanes and arrested for not having his driver's license.

In three searches of cars driven by blacks, police found contraband: a gun, crack cocaine, drug paraphernalia or marijuana. Blacks also were at the wheel in three cases of suspected stolen vehicles.

Does any of this prove or disprove racial profiling?

No, says Keith Fangman, vice president of the Fraternal Order of Police. "It could mean anything that anybody wants it to mean."

First we have to take a good, hard look at it.

E-mail or phone 768-8395.

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