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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spokane police disproportionately stop people of color, report says

Due to a reporter’s error, an earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Hispanic residents were disproportionately stopped by police.

Spokane police disproportionately stop black and Native American residents, but don’t display a pattern of racial bias when deciding who to search and arrest.

That’s the conclusion of a report released Tuesday by Eastern Washington University professor Edward Byrnes, who collaborated with Spokane police Capt. Brad Arleth to examine five months of officer-initiated stops from 2014.

He presented the report at a Tuesday meeting of the Mayor’s Advisory Council for Multicultural Affairs.

The study, which analyzed 7,021 police contacts from March to August 2014, found black Spokane residents made up 6 percent of police contacts in spite of being only 2.5 percent of the population. Native Americans were also over-represented at 3 percent of police contacts versus 1.7 percent of the general population.

In both cases, Byrnes found those differences were statistically significant, meaning they were beyond what random chance would predict.

Hispanics are stopped only 3.3 percent of the time, though they make up 5.3 percent of the population - an under-representation that was also statistically significant.

Arrest rates for both racial groups were higher than rates of contact with police, and that difference was also statistically significant. But the reasons for arrest were split nearly evenly between warrants and new charges, regardless of racial group.

Byrnes said that suggests officers aren’t looking for excuses to arrest people of color – if they were, he’d expect to see higher numbers of arrests on new charges, rather than warrants.

“The initial disproportionality in contacts seems to be what’s driving the data in searches and arrests,” he said.

He did not find evidence of disproportionate use of force on any racial group, though with a sample size of just 22 incidents, he said more data is needed to fully understand if and how race impacts use of force.

The report came just days before the Department of Justice’s first visit to Spokane since the agency released a report outlining 42 recommendations for the police department, mostly focused on improving policies, training and review of use-of-force incidents.

Department of Justice representatives are scheduled to meet with police executive leadership today before giving two public presentations about the department’s progress. The first official progress report is expected in late June.

Police Chief Frank Straub said the EWU report echoed Justice Department findings showing Spokane police don’t engage in biased policing or application of force.

“It’s very clear that there’s no indication of biased policing. We’re not going out and targeting persons of color,” he said.

But while the lack of disparity in arrest and searches was comforting, Center for Justice Executive director Rick Eichstaedt said in an email that more data is needed before police can say there’s no racial bias in use of force.

“Both reports indicate that there is a disproportionate impact of use of force on people of color – but given the sample say that they cannot conclude that there is a trend,” he said.

The Department of Justice report found force was used on black people about 10 percent of the time and on Native Americans 7 percent after an analysis of 243 randomly selected incidents between 2009 and 2013. A report released by the police department in February analyzed all 114 use-of-force incidents in 2014 and found a similar pattern – people who police used force on were black 13 percent of the time and Native American 8.7 percent of the time, though many of those incidents involved officers responding to calls for service.

Though the Justice Department report concluded there was no biased application of use of force, Eichstaedt said when he discussed the issue with Justice Department researchers in follow-up conference calls, they said the sample size was too small to draw conclusions. The small sample size “is good – we don’t have that many use-of-force incidents,” Eichstaedt said. But it also means ongoing data collection and analysis of use of force incidents is needed, he said.

He also found the racial breakdown of police stops concerning.

“This raises concerns about racial profiling – is law enforcement making decisions on initial stops and interactions based, at least in part, on race?” he said.

That issue was also raised at the Mayor’s Advisory Council for Multicultural Affairs meeting by Sandra Williams, Eastern’s Pride Center coordinator, who said many people in the black community believe they’ve been stopped for “driving while black” or “walking while black.”

“There certainly is a perception that it happens,” she said.

The study’s goal was to examine how officers’ perceptions of civilian race influenced contacts, so only incidents in which officers had a choice about who to contact were included.

An incident in which a woman calls 911 because her boyfriend is assaulting her in their home wouldn’t make the cut, because police are legally obligated both to respond and to arrest the aggressor, regardless of race. But an officer detaining and questioning a woman who matched the description of a suspect in a recent burglary would be counted, as would a traffic stop.

Data came from a post-contact form filled out by officers, which asks for the stop type, reason for the stop, outcome, civilian gender and race, whether a search took place and whether force was used.

The groundwork for the study began in 2012, when Arleth approached Byrnes after hearing testimony at a Use of Force Commission meeting about race and disproportionality. The pair worked to develop the data collection form and began research in 2014.

Data collection is ongoing, and Byrnes will be releasing subsequent reports. Eventually, he hopes to have enough data to look at neighborhood-specific statistics, and get more conclusive information about race and use of force.

“What I see myself doing is simply using what I know mathematically to shine a light. A lot of these questions aren’t going to be answered by numbers – they’re going to be solved by narratives between the police and the community,” he said.

Rachel Dolezal, the chairwoman of the police ombudsman commission and NAACP president, said she was glad Arleth and Byrnes collaborated on the report and would like to see the data lead to better bias training for all city officials involved in the justice system, not just police.

“I’m hoping that there can be an organization and structure to implementing training that would counter bias … so that this type of disproportionality can be reduced,” she said.

Eichstaedt and Dolezal support more data collection, but also believe the report indicates broader issues that should be addressed via a cultural audit of the department.

“The numbers are there, it’s important that we pay attention to those numbers and continue the process of a cultural audit of the police department,” Dolezal said.

That audit was recommended by the city’s Use of Force Commission in 2012. The Department of Justice report said the department needed to clarify that request with the commission and determine whether an audit still needs to be conducted.

Straub told the mayor’s advisory council that the police department is committed to understanding why contacts are disproportionately high for black and Native American residents, and continuing to gather more data.

“We need you. We need the broader community to help us explore these issues,” he said. “Collectively, we have to have that discussion about why those contacts are happening.”