Sunday, January 28, 2018

Keeping Stats, Good; What the Stats Show, Bad

As police chiefs go, I like what I know of St. Paul's Todd Axtell.

One thing he's done since he became chief is make his officers keep better information on their traffic stops, including consistently collecting data on the race of the people they stop. In his first half-year in 2016, 84 percent of stops had data on race recorded; in 2017, that percentage is up to 94.

You can't know if policing is being done fairly without that data, and anyone who thinks police record-keeping should somehow be "colorblind" in a racist system is deluded.

I'm also not opposed to the fact that, under Axtell, St. Paul police are stopping 20 percent more drivers, and ticketing 137 percent more of them (comparing just 2016 and 2017). That means they issued a citation in 58 percent of their stops, while the previous year, it had been just 28 percent. Axtell says those numbers are about being responsive to resident complaints about speeding, enforcement of distracted driving laws, and attempts to stem an increase in gun violence in some neighborhoods. I don't have a problem with enforcing traffic laws, as long as it's done consistently across the city.

And it's a positive sign that the percent of tickets given to black drivers is down slightly, but the disparity is still way too high. Some excerpts from the Pioneer Press article linked above:

Black drivers were involved in 33 percent of the police stops and make up 13 percent of the city’s driving-age residents. Drivers who were Asian, Hispanic and Native American did not see the same disparity. White drivers were involved in 43 percent of the police stops and make up 58 percent of the city’s population....

The new traffic stop data also showed black drivers were more likely to be ticketed than drivers of other races. Black drivers received 28 percent of the citations written by St. Paul police in 2017, while white drivers received about 50 percent of all tickets....

The traffic stop data released Friday also showed police were twice as likely to frisk black drivers and search their vehicles during a traffic stop. More than half the drivers who were frisked by police or had their vehicles searched in 2017 were black....

Black drivers were pulled over for equipment violations and for investigative reasons more often than any other racial or ethnic group. Black drivers accounted for more than 40 percent of police stops in those categories while making up 13 percent of the city’s residents of driving age.... (emphasis added)

Equipment violation and investigative reasons: those are the two reasons Philando Castile was stopped in the neighboring suburb of Falcon Heights in July 2016, before he was shot to death for no reason. His rear brake light was out, and he had a "wide nose" that made him look like a suspect in a robbery a few days earlier.

Looking at this chart, it's easy to see that white people were stopped for moving violations about 6 times as often as they were for equipment violations, and about 35 times as often as they were for investigative reasons. For black drivers, those proportions are just 3.3 times and 20 times. So black drivers were not nearly as likely to be stopped for an action the cop had observed, but rather for the supposed state of their vehicles or some suspicion the cop had of the car's occupants. Both of which are open to bias, whether implicit or overt.

The PiPress article describes the implicit bias training St. Paul cops are now doing each year, and that's good. But there's more to be done here. I have some faith that Chief Axtell, especially now with our new mayor, Melvin Carter, at City Hall, will make some headway on fixing these disparities. It can't come soon enough.

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