HTTP/1.0 200 OK Content-Type: text/html City's Plan To Probe Racial Profiling Flawed
Pubdate: Sun, 15 Apr 2001
Source: Houston Chronicle (TX)
Copyright: 2001 Houston Chronicle
Author: Dan Feldstein


Some HPD Officers Ignore Form

In August 1999, Mayor Lee Brown announced that Houston police would begin 
documenting every traffic stop they made in an effort to see if any were 
using racial profiling.

"We owe it to the community to find out," he said at a news conference 
during the National Urban League's convention here.

But police might not be finding out much, if anything. A computer analysis 
by the Chronicle shows that after nearly 20 months, the data collected by 
the state's largest police force may be seriously flawed.

As the Texas Legislature considers whether to require every police agency 
in the state to record the race of everyone it stops, Houston's biggest 
contribution might be to illustrate the policy's potential pitfalls:

* While Houston police have made at least 450,000 traffic stops since the 
program began -- and likely hundreds of thousands more -- their 
racial-profiling database had only 110,000 entries as of a month ago. Some 
officers say they simply don't fill out the computerized form.

* The error rate in the "race" box is at least 19 percent. Officers can 
choose among "w" for white, "b" for black, "h" for Hispanic, "a" for Asian 
and "n" for Native American, but thousands of records contain blanks and typos.

* Officials seem unsure whether they can determine which officers made 
which stops.

The department last year told the Chronicle that because of unforeseen 
computer problems, the officers' names could be matched to their stops only 
by hand-checking roll-call rosters. When the Chronicle asked for copies of 
those rosters, the department said it would charge the paper $6,462.90 in 
copying and other fees.

But it might not be so complicated after all. Upon receipt of a computer 
file of officers' log-in times to their car terminals, the Chronicle last 
month was able to match most stops to an officer in less than five minutes 
using off-the-shelf software. Still, more than 7,000 stops appeared to be 
unmatched with any officer.

Police Chief C.O. Bradford declined a request for an interview. Through a 
spokesman, he said the department would be modifying the data-collection 
process and would be asking two college professors for their assistance in 
analyzing the data.

Meanwhile in Austin, the Legislature is considering bills sponsored by Sen. 
Royce West, D-Dallas, and Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston, that outlaw 
the practice of stopping and questioning a citizen because of his or her 
race. A new system of either reporting or videotaping all stops would be 

While civil rights groups strongly back the legislation, some police 
associations are wary of it. And Houston's program may shed light on the 
problems involved in collecting and using such data.

A police officer sees a young black man in a new, expensive car. He 
suspects the man is a drug dealer and follows until he finds a reason to 
pull him over.

The man turns out to be an attorney and is let go. He is furious, knowing 
he was pulled over because of his race.

This, critics say, is "racial profiling" and is widespread among the 
nation's law enforcement agencies. For years, police officials said that 
such instances were unverified anecdotes, not common occurrences.

To try to settle the issue, the police department in San Jose, Calif., in 
1997 became the first to announce that it would track all of its stops for 
racial patterns.

In August 1999, Brown, during a national convention featuring a panel on 
police and race, announced that Houston would begin a similar program.

Officials said tracking all officer-initiated stops -- whether a citation 
was issued or not -- would send a powerful message to the community that 
racial profiling would not be tolerated.

It was supposed to send the same message to police officers. But many of 
them complained that the collection process would be an annoying waste of 
time and that the data collected could only be used against them.

They cited the case of officers working in all-black or all-Hispanic 
neighborhoods whose stops would be overwhelmingly minority and thus 
presumably suspect.

Bradford said he didn't believe his officers were making stops based on 
race but that the community needed assurance. He also said supervisors 
would know which officers worked in minority areas.

As the program kicked into gear, traffic tickets dropped precipitously as 
wary officers stopped fewer people. (Other factors also were involved in 
the drop, such as changes in court procedures and a temporary loss of grant 
money for overtime patrols.)

Ticket volume has crept back up. But though some elected officials in 
Austin are citing Houston as a role model, close scrutiny reveals serious 
flaws in the program.

 From Aug. 24, 1999, to March 8, 2001, the racial-profiling database, 
obtained by the Chronicle through the Texas Public Information Act, shows 
110,496 officer-initiated contacts.

"Officer-initiated" means the officer makes the decision to stop a person, 
like a traffic stop. It does not include responding to an accident or to a 
911 call.

The problem is that the data suggest Houston's 5,400 officers initiated 
stops on only about 200 people per day. That's an average of one such stop 
per day for every 27 officers, an impossibly low number.

According to police records, officers issued about 770,000 traffic 
citations in the same period that 110,496 entries were made in the 
profiling database.

A portion of that gap can be explained. First, officers can issue multiple 
citations in a single traffic stop. According to a Houston Municipal Courts 
study, the average is 1.7.

Dividing 770,000 by 1.7 indicates that police made about 450,000 traffic 
stops in which a ticket was issued.

Another part of the gap is explained by the fact that some officers are not 
required to collect profiling data. Those on a horse, bicycle or motorcycle 
do not have the "mobile data terminal" needed to fill out the computerized 

But that doesn't close the gap. Motorcycle officers write by far the most 
traffic tickets of the three excluded groups, police officials said, and 
they account for only 78,000 citations, or perhaps 46,000 stops in the 
period examined.

And, of course, the preceding comparison between the officer-initiated 
database and traffic-ticket stops excludes thousands of other stops that 
should be included in the database -- such as stops in which no ticket was 
issued and stops in which someone was arrested on suspicion of driving 
while intoxicated or other crimes.

A final way to narrow the gap in the favor of police would be to consider 
the fact that not all traffic tickets are written after an 
officer-initiated stop. Sometimes dispatchers send officers to an accident 
scene, where they then write citations.

However, during the time period studied, Houston had only 75,000 traffic 
accidents, according to the Texas Department of Public Safety -- not enough 
to fill the gap.

There is a more likely explanation: Officers are not filling out the forms.

Among 10 officers interviewed at a shift change at the Houston Police 
Department's central division, two said they thought they were no longer 
required to fill out the form.

Most said that they filled it out but weren't sure if others did. One just 
laughed. Another said "no way" did his colleagues fill out the forms, 
because it was "a pain in the ass."

When the program started, officers could not get to the form they needed to 
write a ticket without first entering some data on the racial-profiling 
form. But that feature has been disabled, several said.

And apparently no one is checking up on the program.

Under the Texas Public Information Act, the Chronicle picked out 13 
officers at random and requested one "work card" filled out by each, from 
randomly selected days.

Although the handwritten cards indicated those officers made more than 40 
stops that should have been entered into the database, none was found there.

That's unacceptable, says a leading national advocate of collecting 
profiling data.

"If you really want something out of this, you have to give people 
assurance that it was collected properly," said David Harris, a University 
of Toledo law professor. "If the effort is not given a chance, you'd be 
better off not doing it at all. Nobody is reassured."

The question is posed to Kevin Begley, chief of the West University Place 

It is 3 p.m. on a quiet cul-de-sac in his affluent, nearly all-white 
enclave. A young black man in shorts and a T-shirt is walking around. If an 
officer stops him to see what the man is up to, is this racial profiling?

"Well, no. Well ... based solely on a black individual on a sidewalk, yeah, 
it would be," Begley waffled.

But, he added, a young white man wandering in Houston's predominantly black 
Third Ward would also be considered suspicious.

"Because it's out of place," he said, "and that's what police officers are 
trained to look for."

Begley agrees in principle that singling someone out solely because of his 
race is wrong. "No one should have to worry about driving or walking while 
black or brown," he said.

But does it work? Does racial profiling help officers do their jobs, 
especially when combined with other aspects of a full "profile" -- for 
example, if someone is nervous, wearing certain clothes or driving a 
particular kind of car?

Among top executives of larger law enforcement agencies, the debate is 
largely over. They now agree that the anger and distrust racial profiling 
engenders in minority communities is not worth any extra arrests it 
purportedly leads to.

But Begley, as a representative of the Harris County Area Police Chiefs 
Association, which comprises 80 smaller departments in the Houston area, 
opposes the main racial-profiling bill in Austin, SB 1074.

Already the bill is a product of hard compromise between civil rights 
groups and police groups in meetings overseen by West.

It requires all departments to keep track of the race or ethnicity of 
people they ticket and make special records of searches. The state already 
requires race on all tickets, but Hispanics are technically classified as 

HPD and some other departments have addressed that problem internally with 
a "Hispanic" category, but some have not.

Departments would also be required to compile a second database of the race 
or ethnicity of all people who are stopped, not just those who are ticketed 
or arrested. Harris and others say it is even more important to document 
those stops where there has been no violation of law.

But the legislation includes a huge exception to its reporting 
requirements. If every patrol vehicle is equipped with a video camera that 
records all stops, and the tapes are saved for three months, a department 
doesn't have to keep a database of all its stops, just those that result in 
a ticket.

West's chief of staff said this will reduce racial profiling because 
citizens will have video to verify any claim of mistreatment. The bill 
requires departments to have a well-publicized complaint procedure.

Begley testified last month that data entry will take too much of officers' 
time and cause them to avoid contact with citizens. He also said the video 
requirements are an "unfunded mandate" to local governments.

Rep. Thompson likened such complaints to Chicken Little protesting that the 
sky was falling. But the points raised by Begley and others were not 
dismissed. Although the bill has been passed by the Senate and cleared a 
House committee, it is on hold while West and Thompson scramble to find $35 
million to cover the costs being forced on departments.

The biggest boosters of profiling statistics admit there's still a major 
problem. Once the statistics have been compiled, what do they show?

Are they compared with a city's racial makeup as determined by the 
nationwide census? Are they compared with licensed drivers living in the 
city's jurisdiction? Are they compared with the racial composition of the 
drivers on the roads, if that could be determined?

In West University Place, surrounded by Houston, that's a major issue. The 
residents are mostly white, but drivers passing through are of the 
variegated colors of greater Houston.

"That really is the million-dollar question. The analysis (of data) has 
been done really poorly," said Amy Farrell, a senior research associate at 
Northeastern University and co-author of a U.S. Department of Justice study 
titled, "A Resource Guide on Racial Profiling Data Collection Systems."

A professor at Temple University in Philadelphia, out to prove that New 
Jersey state troopers target blacks, went so far as to have his assistants 
drive at 5 mph over the speed limit on the New Jersey Turnpike and record 
the race of everyone who passed them.

In that way, they had the rough racial composition of all drivers who 
deserved to be pulled over. (He found blacks and whites sped in equal 

A look at Houston's meager racial-profiling database illustrates the 
problem. Eliminating the 19 percent of entries that have a blank or typo in 
the race category, the database shows:

. Whites, who constitute 31.5 percent of the city's population in the 2000 
Census, were pulled over 37.8 percent of the time.

. Hispanics, 37.4 percent of the city's population, were pulled over only 
27.9 percent of the time.

. Blacks, 25.3 percent of the population, were pulled over 30.7 percent of 
the time.

The data would appear to indicate that police pick on white people even 
more than black people, and pick on Hispanics the least.

That's a surprising conclusion, and probably inaccurate because of the 
skimpiness of the database and other factors. For example, Hispanics may be 
37 percent of the city's population, but as Houston's youngest demographic 
group, they probably aren't 37 percent of the drivers.

The decision to simply eliminate the 19 percent of entries that were blank 
or typos may also be a problem. It assumes that they were mistakes made 
randomly. But what if officers were carefully filling in their "white" 
stops but leaving their "black" stops blank?

"Officers that do racially profile will never fill out that form or get on 
the computer showing they've made a traffic stop," said Hans Marticiuc, 
president of the Houston Police Officers Union.

"As a 21-year police officer, I can tell you, if someone is out there doing 
illegal activity, they're not going to tell you," he said.

But what if the statistics do show a tendency to pull over more minorities, 
as they have in other cities? Bradford has offered explanations for why a 
high stop count for minorities might not indicate a racial-profiling problem.

In a December 2000 memo to City Council member Annise Parker, who had 
inquired about the program, he wrote that "many of the calls for police 
service in minority populated areas include criminal activity occurring on 
the public streets (i.e., loud noise, open drug activity, trespass). 
Therefore, police officers responding to these requests initiate a greater 
number of contacts."

Bradford also said that more low-income people tend to drive cars that have 
problems than do higher-income people, problems that would lead to a police 

He could have added that some middle-class areas contract with county 
constables to patrol their subdivisions, while Houston police focus on 
areas with high numbers of apartments. Unless 911 has been called, HPD 
rarely enters some largely white neighborhoods.

"How much can (data collection) do? I'm not sure. It kind of sensitizes 
people" to the issue, said West, author of the legislation.

"It is very demeaning to be stopped because of the color of your skin, in 
front of your children," he said.

Professor Harris said data collection is only one tool, requiring the 
support of the community and the police. Departments should not throw 
together a "slapdash" system just to meet minimal requirements, he said.

"You wouldn't approach crime-fighting that way," he said.

West's chief of staff, Janna Burleson, said his legislation is more than 
just a data-collection measure, citing the videotaping requirement and the 
fact that it includes a forthright declaration by the state that racial 
profiling is forbidden.

"You don't have to look far to find a minority who it's happened to," she said.
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MAP posted-by: Larry Stevens