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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Shawn Vestal: Latest police-bias study full of data, if not clarity

In the latest report evaluating racial disparities in stops, arrests and uses of force by the Spokane Police Department, the authors note that officers are much more likely to search the cars of Black and Native American drivers than other motorists.

They also say the data on such stops is too thin to be truly meaningful – because too many officers do not report the data, or report incorrect or incomplete information, on the form SPD adopted seven years ago as a way of tracking this very subject.

Thus the new report suggests junking that system, and coming up with another one. Chief Craig Meidl says discussions about doing that within the main data system – rather than in a separate form – will begin Monday.

Which is good, though frustrating for anyone who thought the changes made in 2014 would be producing more reliable data by now. Like much in the 307-page, $10,000 report, which was commissioned by SPD in the wake of research showing Black residents are five times more likely to be arrested here than whites, the information on car searches has entered the world of the data storm.

The data storm is the weather that surrounds difficult public problems that are addressed by a continual sequence of studies that never conclude, where data competes with and contradicts other data, and where context – or sometimes “context” – completely swamps clarity.

In the data storm, one study always calls for another.

This is sometimes the case because a subject is truly complex and resists simplification. I think it’s fair to say that discerning bias in the actions of officers, dealing with complex, sometimes emotional or dangerous situations, is one of those cases.

But it’s also true that institutions can live in the data storm forever, always needing just one more round of information, just one more set of facts or data tool, just one more friendly study to counter the adversarial one, before they can truly identify the problem.

The search information exemplifies this. In 2014, SPD adopted a form intended to track the demographic information of those involved in officer-initiated traffic stops. This Demographic Profiling Form was intended to see if officers were racially profiling drivers.

“Since these types of searches are highly discretionary for officers and they produce significant racial disparities, there is a high risk of racial bias being a contributing factor,” the authors of the new report wrote.

The report shows Black and Native American Spokane residents are more likely to be searched by officers after being pulled over – at rates two times more or higher than white motorists, depending on which type of search is measured.

Despite the fact the study’s authors cited DFP information throughout the report, they note that the data is too thin to be “meaningful.”

Officers don’t consistently enter their names or badge numbers, the report found. Because the system duplicates some other information, there “is no incentive for officers to be complete and accurate” in filling them out. The data base does not record how many officers are involved in a stop – only the name of the one filing the information. The number of forms filed that note when an officer has used force falls far short of the actual number tracked by the department’s more comprehensive database.

‘No significant disparities’

Meidl said the effort to collect the demographic data was begun in good faith, but that it was undercut by a variety of problems.

Some of that had to do with software that did not perform as advertised, and part of the problem was that the survey added an additional task for officers already tasked with putting information into main computerized system, dealing with body-cam requirements, preparing to write a report on the incident and continuing to take calls.

“We had more compliance than not,” he said, “but not at 100% like we wanted.”

The intention now is to try and move the collection of that data into the main system – the computer-aided dispatch system, or CAD – rather than in a separate format.

Overall, the report, which was authored by Police Strategies LLC, a Seattle-based firm run by a former prosecutor, police administrator and others, provides a different picture of bias on SPD operations than past evaluations. That’s largely because it uses a different foundation for comparison. Instead of comparing officer contacts with the population, it compares them to the demographic makeup of criminal complaints.

This is an effort – and one that the report makes strenuously – to identify the problem of discrimination as one that is wider than simply the police department. This is doubtlessly true; systemic racism operates thoroughly throughout the country, and historic, institutionalized forms of bias have cumulative effects.

A lot of that underlies race and policing in complicated ways. It’s often not so simple as an officer doing something clearly racist or not racist.

The report’s authors looked at the racial makeup of criminal complaints that come into the department, and found that they are disproportionately likely to identify criminal suspects that are Black or Native American. This is also true when the people reporting the crimes are people of color.

If there’s an imbalance, the report suggests, it’s in the biases of the public – or in the criminality of the demographic group in question – not the police.

“The findings show that it is very unlikely that Spokane Police officers are engaged in systemic biased practices against any demographic group,” the report says.

The report’s authors, who also include information about higher rates of crime among people of color, said their method is a more accurate reflection of whether officers are operating in biased ways.

They note that when they compared police arrests, stops, searches and other contacts based on Spokane’s population, the data “reaffirms the findings of prior racial disparity studies of the Spokane Police Department. Blacks and Native Americans are more likely to be stopped, arrested, searched and have force used against them compared to their proportion of the population.”

But when you use reported crimes as the baseline for the study, these disparities largely vanish – “no significant racial disparities are observed in police stops or arrests.”

‘Viruses are not racially biased’

This approach was sharply criticized last week by Ed Byrnes, an Eastern Washington University professor who studies race in policing. In a written statement, Byrnes said the method used in the new report is an elaborate way of dismissing the issue by assertion that police arrest more people of color simply because people of color commit more crimes.

“Essentially, the idea that officer-initiated disproportionate contacts of minority group members by police is not actually disproportionate because minorities are more frequently alleged to be criminal suspects is a repackaging of an old narrative in a different veneer,” he wrote.

“We can likely anticipate attempts to apply this veneer to other police departments, perhaps by suggesting a reanalysis of other reports… Applying the ‘minorities are more often criminal suspects’ justification for disproportionate minority contact with police is an effort to change the narrative and conversation away from social justice.”

The report is a strange beast in many ways. In its attention to other potential factors for the disparities, it puts it focus not on the department and ways it might improve – but on context and rationales. At times, it seems to be crafting statistical excuses.

The report is packed with data, much of which seems to have little bearing on the subject at hand. In addition to racial disparities, it examines age and gender disparities – older women are very much less likely to be arrested or searched than young men, for example – and neighborhood data is examined for pages and pages.

It includes a pretty full-throated defense of the chokehold – the “lateral neck restraint” – with almost no clear, useful analysis of the fact that, even with the friendlier methodology employed, there remains a higher rate of force applied to people of color by SPD officers. Bizarrely, the report includes an appendix titled “Other Racial Disparity Examples.” It includes a four-page analysis of disparities in professional sports and a six-page breakdown of racial disparities in COVID-19.

“Viruses are not racially biased,” the authors write, “and they do not discriminate based solely on the color of someone’s skin. Nevertheless, we see significant racial disparities in the COVID-19 infection rates and mortality rates for persons of color in the United States.”

The implication seems to be that police officers are like the coronavirus – blameless for any racial disparities that may arise.

The report doesn’t push us much closer to an answer or a strategy for improvement. It simply raises the wind speed on the data storm, and calls for more study.

We’ve been in this data storm for a while now. The DPF forms, mentioned at the top of the column, are the perfect illustration. Their adoption was a good step forward, one that other agencies aren’t taking. But it was a bust, partly because it’s unwieldy and officers were not using it enough to produce reliable information.

So, on this metric, SPD is doing what often happens in the middle of the data storm: Starting over.

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