Police departments throughout Maryland have turned to data collection from traffic stops to answer accusations of racial profiling, but a study released yesterday says that police may be leaning too heavily on the practice.
"It's like data collection has become the default response to racially biased policing - if you care about it, you will collect data," said Lorie Fridell, primary author of the 160-page report, "Racially Biased Policing: A Principled Response." "But we have limited ability to make any sense of the data right now."
The study says - and police agree - that traffic-stop data do not paint an accurate picture of racial profiling, in part because:
Commuters from counties with varying demographics travel through a county, but traffic-stop data often are compared to the county's demographic mix.
Some jurisdictions do not track all police stops, only nonradar traffic stops.
The public suspects that some officers and departments are guilty of racial profiling, yet these same people are being trusted to collect data on the issue.
The report comes on the heels of the July 1 initiation of a Maryland state law mandating that all police agencies keep statistics on drivers pulled over by officers. It was conducted by the Police Executive Research Forum and funded by the U.S. Department of Justice.
Some police agencies, including the Maryland State Police, Baltimore City, Baltimore County and Howard County departments, started gathering traffic-stop data months or years before the law went into effect.
The state police have been collecting information on stops since the 1995 settlement of a racial profiling lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union. The ACLU lawsuit alleged that troopers used race when deciding whether to search cars along the 50-mile stretch of Interstate 95 between Baltimore and Delaware.
"Some departments think they can resolve any problem with racial profiling solely by data collection," said Deborah A. Jeon, an ACLU lawyer and a member of the advisory board that worked with the Police Executive Research Forum to compile the report.
"Data collection is a means of diagnosing the problem, not solving it, and it should not be used to the exclusion of other approaches," she said.
Instead of relying on data collection, the report offers more than 50 recommendations for decreasing racial profiling. Among them: Treat racially biased policing as a human-rights issue, work together with community leaders to develop mutual trust and abandon the "bad apple" theory of racial profiling in favor of examining institutional factors.
The report also emphasizes the difference between racially biased policing and racial profiling, saying that police and citizens have disparate definitions of racial profiling, which compounds the problem.
"This is really just a new label for an age-old problem: police and minority relations," Fridell said.
In Howard County, police Chief Wayne Livesay publicly announced his department's intolerance of racially biased policing at a news conference and series of community meetings in October 1999.
"Howard County has really been a frontrunner in all of this," Livesay said. "We're doing more than any department I've seen, primarily since we came right out front with a public statement against it."
Along with Baltimore County, Howard County has plans to keep even more data than the new Maryland law requires: Both departments will track information on all laser and radar speed measuring stops. The law calls only for information on stops initiated without the equipment.
Every time a Howard County police officer stops a car or pedestrian, there has to be a document produced, Livesay said. The department has done away with verbal warnings, he said, in an effort to track all police-resident interactions.
Livesay said Howard County has not experienced accusations of racial bias on the police force.
"But I'm being realistic - we're dealing with human beings," he said. "That's why it's critical to set up these kinds of processes."
Fridell said she "can't imagine that there is such a thing as a jurisdiction without racially biased policing problems or perceptions of a problem."
Jeon said data collected in Maryland reveal that the state does have a significant racial profiling problem.
"Until it is acknowledged as a problem in Maryland, we can't begin to solve it," she said.
Livesay represents the Maryland Chiefs of Police, a group with more than 125 members, on a committee set up to examine the Maryland racial profiling law and develop ways to collect and fairly analyze the data it produces.
"We have not yet reached the point where we can say what the numbers really mean," he said.
There are myriad reasons why the raw data that agencies will collect during traffic stops may not exactly match the county's demographics, Livesay said. For example, if 50 percent of Howard County's commuters come from other counties, police would have to take those outside demographics into account when analyzing their data.
Livesay said his committee is considering adding ZIP codes to data collection criteria in an effort to counteract that problem.
Fridell said the Police Executive Research Forum plans to begin a follow-up to yesterday's report that will focus on the best practices for analyzing data.