It’s well-documented that police in cities around the country, including Spokane, disproportionately stop black people.
But the reasons for that disparity are often debated.
“There’s one narrative of, OK, police are racist, they stop black people,” said Ed Byrnes, a professor of social work at Eastern Washington University. “There’s a counter-narrative … that police are doing their job. They’re policing bad neighborhoods” that are disproportionately black.
After almost a year of false starts and delays, Byrnes will finally be able to drill down into data collected by the Spokane Police Department to try to shed light on the racial-profiling debate locally.
A 2002 state law says that, if they can afford to, law enforcement agencies in Washington shall “collect demographic data on traffic stops and analyze that data to ensure that racial profiling is not occurring.” But many agencies don’t do it.
Compliance with the law is tracked by the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, which surveys members annually. Of Washington’s roughly 175 law enforcement agencies, 127 filled out the 2015 survey, and just 41 of those said they were collecting data. The agencies that don’t varied in size from the King County Sheriff’s Office to departments in Pasco, Ritzville and Moses Lake.
Mitch Barker, WASPC’s executive director, said some agencies collected data right after the law was passed, but later stopped.
The state didn’t give police agencies more money to comply with the law, and agencies found data collection was harder than it seemed.
Some agencies have older dispatch and records systems that don’t allow officers to record data on race. Others struggled with methodology. Should a person’s race be recorded as an officer’s best guess, or by asking the person? What happens if the person gets angry or refuses to answer the question?
“The concept of it, most people agreed to, and like anything, when you get down into the details it started to become more problematic,” Barker said.
An agency might still be collecting data even if it doesn’t fill out the survey. The Spokane Police Department and Seattle Police Department were both missing from the 2015 spreadsheet of responses.
“It’s pretty sporadic overall,” Barker said.
In Spokane, Byrnes released an initial report in the spring of 2015, co-written with Capt. Brad Arleth, showing Spokane police disproportionately stopped black and Native American residents, based on an analysis of about 7,000 police encounters.
He wanted to pursue a longer study with more data, but the project was put on hold during the tumultuous period where the department had four leaders in less than a year. That delay frustrated community members who were working with the department to discuss possible remedies.
In October, Byrnes finally signed a contract with the city to complete a more detailed study. The city will pay up to $16,000 to “buy out” one of Byrnes’ winter quarter classes, allowing him to spend time on data analysis instead of teaching.
Byrnes will look at about 40,000 police stops from March 2014 through the end of September. To more accurately capture officer decision-making, his analysis will only include incidents where police chose to stop or make contact with someone, not calls for service where officers are required to respond.
With a larger sample size, he’ll be able to drill down into the neighborhood level, in some cases looking at individual patrol blocks.
Using a model that considers the crime rate and the neighborhood’s demographic makeup, Byrnes hopes to be able to answer some tough questions about police encounters. For areas where he’s able to collect enough data, he hopes to analyze how much of an impact factors like race, sex, age, crime rate and location have on an individual officer’s decision to search, arrest or use force on someone once they’re stopped.
“There’s not many folks looking at it this way,” Byrnes said.
He’ll also be looking at police decisions to search, arrest and use force on people once they’re stopped, and how demographic factors play a role in those decisions.
Other Spokane county agencies track the race of people stopped by police. Both Cheney and Liberty Lake police gather the data annually and do an in-house analysis, which is made easier by the smaller number of calls they have.
Liberty Lake police Chief Brian Asmus said the department’s report at the end of 2015 found about 97 percent of 2,000 contacts were with white people. Liberty Lake’s population is about 89 percent white, census data shows.
Cheney has a similar system in place and does an annual report, Capt. Rick Beghtol said. Its data has not shown disproportionality in stops, he said.
All Spokane County law enforcement agencies other than Cheney recently switched to a new, shared records management system that will make the data easier to collect.
Byrnes said he’ll issue a new report next spring.
The Spokane Police Department has taken Arleth off the project and shifted it to Assistant Chief Justin Lundgren, a decision Byrnes has already said publicly he doesn’t agree with. He said he still plans to list Arleth as a co-author and consult him when needed, since collecting the data was something Arleth approached him about several years ago.
Spokane police Chief Craig Meidl said he plans to work with the Spokane NAACP and other community groups once the results of the study are out to see if department policies or training are contributing to disproportionate contacts for racial minorities.
“If we determine that to be the case, we will work with this same group to help us correct any deficiencies we may have,” he said in an email.
Byrnes said he’s pleased to see a renewed commitment from the city to continue looking at racial profiling.
“There’s been a big turnaround,” he said.