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Shawn Vestal: Addressing police bias in roadside stop is a marathon, not a sprint

Shawn Vestal (Dan Pelle / DAN PELLE)
Shawn Vestal (Dan Pelle / DAN PELLE)

Take a gulp of relief, white people: Though we are more likely than any other racial or ethnic group in the state to be caught with contraband when searched by the smokies, we’re searched less than most any other group.

Native American drivers, meanwhile, are the subjects of discretionary searches more than five times more often than white drivers, according to InvestigateWest, working with data gathered and made public by Stanford University.

This is bad news for equal justice. The good news is that the Washington State Patrol and some lawmakers seem to be taking it seriously. The patrol has indicated it might team up with Washington State University to research the issue more deeply, as well as working on training and recruiting; lawmakers have expressed concerns about the data, but most seem satisfied that the patrol is responding to it seriously.

What qualifies this seemingly good news, however, is the fact we’ve been here before, and the fact that truly quantifying, understanding and rooting out bias is incredibly difficult. We see it time and time again: Identifying structural discrimination leads more frequently to well-intentioned promises than to actual change.

A decade ago, for example, facing similar statistics, the WSP and WSU made plans to delve into similar evidence of bias in roadside stops, but ultimately the pledge to study the problem – as pledges to study problems tend to do – was dropped as time passed, laws changed and urgency faded.

The state patrol and lawmakers need to insist now on follow-through that lasts longer than the latest headlines. And that should include a rigorous self-examination for how an organization, in which 9 of 10 members is a white man, can do better in interacting with minority communities.

The racial disparity in searches and corresponding “hit rates” for contraband was outlined sharply late last year by InvestigateWest.

It was an impressive piece of data journalism, perfectly reflective of the times: InvestigateWest is a nonprofit formed by former journalists from the shuttered Seattle Post-Intelligencer, and it used an open data project run by the Stanford Open Policing Project. That project puts reams of raw data on police stops online, allowing data journalists to examine the information for their own communities.

InvestigateWest worked on the project with Crosscut, an online news organization, and Indian Country Today.

Roadside stops, according to Stanford, are the single most common interaction between police and the public in America, taking place roughly 50,000 times a day. The national data shows racial disparities in police stops, as well as searches, tickets and arrests after the stops; what Stanford tries to do is push past identifying disparities toward identifying bias – a much more difficult proposition.

One way to check for bias is to do what InvestigateWest did: compare the number of roadside stops for each demographic group against the number of “high-discretion” searches officers conduct for that group, and then compare that to the number of times officers find illegal contraband. They call it an outcome test.

If minorities are searched more, but “searches of minorities turn up contraband at lower rates than searches of whites, the outcome test suggests officers are applying a double standard,” the Stanford project’s website says.

That’s what InvestigateWest found here. It evaluated more than 8 million stops by the WSP between 2009 and 2015 – as well as nearly 22,000 “high-discretion” searches when there was no requirement of law or policy calling for a search. They calculated how frequently officers then performed searches on populations of drivers by race and ethnicity.

WSP officers searched Native American drivers at a rate more than five times that of white drivers; they did the same with black drivers more than twice as often as white drivers; and the rate of searches was also higher for Hispanic and Pacific Islander drivers than white drivers.

And yet white drivers had the highest “hit rate” – the discovery of drugs, illegal weapons or other contraband. More than a third of the time (35.2%), when WSP performed a discretionary search of a white driver’s car, they found contraband.

The hit rate was 33% for Native drivers, 30% for Pacific Islanders, 26% for African-American drivers and 24% for Hispanic drivers.

Asian drivers were searched at the lowest rate of any demographic group, but had a hit rate higher than that for African-American and Hispanic drivers.

These numbers suggest a deep and difficult problem. The patrol is saying the right things for now. Lawmakers and the public should help them ensure their determination doesn’t fade.