Washington State University announced last week a new commitment to address racial bias in policing, following an internal investigation which found campus police arrested Black people at about four times the rate of white people.
The July 30 announcement follows a story last summer in the student newspaper, The Daily Evergreen, which pointed to racial disparities in arrests. About three months ago WSU investigators replicated the student report.
About 12% of people the WSU Police Department arrested from May 2018 to May 2019 were Black, while only 2.7 percent of Pullman’s population is black, according to the August article.
WSU Police Chief Bill Gardner said he wanted to “get to the bottom” of those numbers, so he asked WSU’s Office of Civil Rights Compliance and Investigation to do their own investigation spanning several years of arrest data.
WSU investigators replicated the student newspaper’s calculations using records of all WSU police arrests from Jan. 2016 to Sept. 19, 2019. That analysis echoed the first: 10.9% of arrests were of Black people.
In response to the report from the Office of Civil Rights Compliance and Investigation as well as the killing of George Floyd, the university has committed to start a community work group including student representatives, while Gardner promised to look into each of the cases involving Black people in the report.
With feedback from the work group, the WSU Police Department promised to create a Civil Rights Action Plan by Dec. 18, 2020, with goals like increasing bias training and creating clearer policies for gathering demographic data.
In a statement, Gardner acknowledged “the deaths of George Floyd and other unarmed Black people at the hands of police,” saying, “I believe that Black lives matter. Our aim should always be to treat people with the highest standard of care, love and respect.”
For Black Student Union secretary Yubi Lojewski, hearing the words “Black lives matter,” from WSU’s police chief stirred mixed feelings, in part because the words came too late.
“I think a year back or even a few months back, the idea of publicly addressing the Black Lives Matter movement and what it stands for at its core was still frowned on by society, you were considered radical,” Lojewski said. “It does seem like a publicity stunt almost, kind of like how now so many corporations and schools and major companies have been saying Black lives matter.”
Phil Weiler, vice president for marketing and communications at WSU, said he recently learned from a reporter who analyzed universities’ statements after George Floyd’s death, and WSU was one of the few that used the words Black Lives Matter.
“I didn’t think that would be a surprising or controversial thing for a university to say,” Weiler said. “Hopefully that’s changing, I think as a society we’re going through a moment where we’re finally coming to grips with the fact that, me, as a white person, I benefit from privilege I might not even be aware of.”
But Lojewski worries the announcement represents a shift in what is politically correct more than a launching off point for real change. She described the idea of a work group as problematic, for example. Marginalized people, she said, shouldn’t have to offer more details of their personal and generational trauma for police to change. Rather, she believes police can be self-reflective.
Gardner said he understands concerns that the department is acting too late, , but he vowed that WSU police will not stop with one or two easy changes. Instead, the department will start an “overarching” process of reform he expects will never end.
“We’re all willing to take a good hard look at everything, including ourselves,” Gardner said. “So I don’t discount her. In my head, it’s going to be a forever project.”
He said the plan set to be released in December won’t be the end, but a starting point. His drive, he said, is to cause change that lasts for a long time and implement processes that will make it easier for the department to change more in the future, based on the community’s calls for change.
And, he said, there are many moving parts at play. One area where police saw the most disproportionate rates were “status based” offenses, including driving with a suspended license.
Gardner said he wouldn’t place responsibility on other departments where bias may have influenced initial arrests, but he does want to consider nuances in the data.
Drug offenses also showed especially disproportionate Black arrests and citations. Lojewski said that disparity probably comes from implicit bias, which officers aren’t even aware of. That bias, Lojewski said, has been programmed by the war on drugs and racialized phrases like “thug,” “welfare queens” and “crackhead” that were once popular in the media.
Gardner said it could also reflect on the people who pass through Pullman for parties.
“Pullman is very small,” Gardner said. “On certain days, it’s very huge.”
The WSU report pointed to limitations in the data. Investigators learned that “arrests,” as they were called in the data set, also included interactions like issuing a citation and often didn’t involve taking suspects into custody.
And while investigators did find disparities, they could not pin those disproportions on bias alone. The racial differences could reflect intentional discrimination, an unintentional discriminatory effect or, “none of the above – there may be legitimate law enforcement reasons for the disparity,” according to the report.
Weiler said he’s worked with police at municipal and county levels, but Gardner sticks out as a chief dedicated to community-oriented policing.
“I think the natural reaction when someone says something that doesn’t reflect well on your institution is to sort of recoil but (Gardner) really leaned into it,” Weiler said. “He really embraced this and said, ‘I want to get to the bottom of this.’”
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