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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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News >  Crime/Public Safety

Policing analysis ordered by Spokane finds smaller racial disparities than reported before

UPDATED: Sat., March 20, 2021

Thousands of people gather in the Lilac Bowl at Riverfront Park in Spokane on June 7 for a Black Lives Matter rally.  (JESSE TINSLEY)
Thousands of people gather in the Lilac Bowl at Riverfront Park in Spokane on June 7 for a Black Lives Matter rally. (JESSE TINSLEY)

A statistics analysis commissioned by the Spokane Police Department found less evidence of racial discrimination than prior analyses, according to the report published this month.

Local law enforcement researchers say the study adds to the body of research on Spokane police, but does not discount other research indicating racial disparities in local policing outcomes.

Mayor Nadine Woodward introduced the report at a news conference, pointing to the Spokane Police Department as “a model in this state and across the country for how departments should operate.”

Comparing the number of Black and Native American people reported as suspects in 911 and Crime Check calls to the number of those groups arrested, Police Strategies LLC found no disproportion.

Once white or Asian people were arrested, they were equally likely to have force used against them, the study found. Black people were 22% more likely to have force used against them and Native Americans were 49% more likely.

The largest disparities researchers found were in gender. Women were significantly less likely to be reported as a suspect, arrested or to experience uses of force.

A Spokesman-Review analysis of racial breakdowns in arrests found in June that about 12% of arrests made over a five-year period were of Black suspects, while the city’s population is about 3% Black. Those rates also showed Black Spokanites were about five times more likely to be arrested than white Spokanites.

The new report, conducted by Police Strategies LLC with help from Seattle University researchers, used a different benchmark for its calculations.

Instead of comparing the number of people arrested to the population, the researchers compared people stopped by police to people named as suspects in calls to police. Then they compared racial breakdowns in stops to arrests and, next, proportions of people arrested to those who police used force to arrest.

The population benchmark assumes that if 3% of the population is Black, in an environment with no racial disparities, researchers would expect to see that 3% of arrested people are Black. In that case, 12% of arrested people being Black represents a large disproportion.

The researchers producing the new report determined that the number of Black suspects reported in calls to police is a fairer measure for how many Black people police might arrest, and researchers found no disparities in those numbers. About 12% of suspects reported by 911 and Crime Check callers were Black and about 12% of people stopped were Black.

“The big difference here is that we use, activity-based benchmarks versus population-based benchmarks,” Bob Scales, a former prosecutor and leader at Police Strategies LLC, said at a press conference this month.

Police Chief Craig Meidl said the results of the study were more aligned with what many officers see on the ground.

“Last year, I had multiple officers approach me about disparities in policing,” Meidl said at a press conference this month. “They told me, ‘Chief, I don’t understand the disparities,’ because we are not seeing it, we’re not engaging in it.”

But some researchers say the results should be taken with a grain of salt.

“Don’t get so enamored with the result that we forget about what the baseline measurement implies,” said Ed Byrnes, an Eastern Washington University professor who has conducted extensive research on racial disparities in Spokane police outcomes.

“This is an old narrative in a different veneer,” Byrnes said.

Byrnes, whose own research looked at racial breakdowns in officer-initiated contacts that did not involve 911 calls, points to calls for service as a potentially problematic baseline.

“Just because white people like me take some comfort in the report saying there’s no bias, it doesn’t mean the baseline was the right one,” Byrnes said.

Byrnes said any community member can call police for help, even if their suspicion about a crime is flimsy or comes from implicit bias.

The report used the National Incident Based Reporting System (NIBRS) to quantify race of suspects in crime reports. This system only includes reports of crimes made by victims, so these are usually serious crimes, such as assaults and robberies, Scales said.

“NIBRS is reflective of criminal behavior in the community,” Scales said in an email to The Spokesman-Review.

Byrnes argued if researchers want to compare arrests to a variable that represents proportions of criminal behavior, “you want something with a bit more strength to it than just who’s calling on the phone.”

Scales said NIBRS incident reports have been investigated by police, though they have not necessarily resulted in an arrest.

Byrnes said he has considered using racial proportions in conviction rates as a yardstick for proportions researchers should expect to see in arrests. He decided against that denominator based on evidence that convictions themselves are not free of bias and many poor people plead guilty through plea deals to avoid the legal costs of a trial, Byrnes said.

“But I understood the rationale,” Byrnes said. “Conviction is the highest standard of evidence. The level of evidence a conviction has compared to the level of evidence for a call for service – a call for service has some inherent ambiguity to it. We are asking them to respond to a situation with some ambiguity. It has not been investigated yet.”

Lois James, a researcher who uses lab simulations to study racial discrimination in police, has found that local police tend to be more reactive and aggressive to simulated Black suspects than simulated white suspects suspected of the same crime, up until the point of pulling the trigger.

Once police must decide to shoot, she has found they tend to shoot Black and white suspects at about the same rate.

James’s research follows in the footsteps of a large body of work that has tested police for implicit bias in experiments, and most studies have found anti-Black bias in police and other professionals, she said.

The activity-based benchmarks like crime reports, she said, are “really important and necessary” baselines to use on top of the population benchmark.

“Comparison to population benchmarks is also important because it can speak to bigger, systemic racism issues,” James said. “Although police are certainly part of the system and part of the problem, they’re not responsible for different opportunities in housing and education, and everything else that we know is at play.”

Scales said the group’s report, which included discussions of population demographics in its more than 300 pages , is not intended to be “the last word” in discussions of racial disparities in Spokane’s criminal justice system, but a starting point for community conversation.

“This may lead to more meetings, studies, and debates and ultimately may generate new laws, policies and procedures designed to reduce racial disparities,” Scales said.

This story has been updated

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