Because You Asked – Race, Data, and Enforcement Equity

 

“Because You Asked” blogs are in response to questions asked by you, the community I serve. Each volume addresses a question or group of questions. I’ve tried to keep the questions worded as asked, but occasionally have to reword them either to provide context or to combine similar questions. In any case, I’ve tried to retain the questioner(s)’ intent.

Questions – It’s been stated that many minorities are coded as being “white” or “Caucasian” in internal Sheriff’s Office systems and that the data made publicly available is not accurate. What policies and procedures have you enacted or will you enact to make sure data is collected and properly coded and made available to the public? How do you address claims that Washington County Sheriff’s Office disproportionately arrests, incarcerates, or targets people from minority groups? What have you done, and what will you do or continue to do in the future to make sure that minority residents in the county feel safe and are not overtly or covertly targeted unfairly?

Excellent questions. Issues of policing, communities of color, data, history, institutional disparate impacts, and our responsibility to eliminate those impacts are important and complex.

First, racial categories used by the Washington County Sheriff’s Office (WCSO) match those required for reporting to state and federal authorities. We report data on traffic and person stops to state authorities, but we report arrest data for federal reporting. While the state and federal race categories are similar, their differences are significant, so I will provide some detail and context for both.

State Categories – Traffic and Person Stops. In 2017, the Oregon Legislature passed House Bill 2355, which created the Statistical Transparency of Policing Program. From this was born a workgroup to determine categories officers must use to record the perceived race of a driver or person stopped by police. The legislative workgroup included community and advocacy leaders, state government, and law enforcement. They consulted the Oregon Population Research Center at Portland State University to establish six categories of race: White, Hispanic, Black, Native American, Middle Eastern, and Asian and Pacific Islander. These established categories almost align with race categories used by the U.S. Census, but add Hispanic and Middle Eastern. Importantly to note, race is not listed on a driver’s license, and the legislature did not think it appropriate for officers to ask a person to identify their race when involved in a traffic or pedestrian stop. Accordingly, officers are required to record what they perceive the stopped person’s race to be. Those perceptions may not always match what the person’s self-identified race. Admittedly, the system created by House Bill 2355 is not perfect – legislation seldom is. But it is important to remember that despite House Bill 2355’s imperfections, prior to this legislation most agencies were not collecting any racial data for stops. So this is an measured improvement.

Federal Categories – Arrests. Oregon law requires state and local law enforcement agencies to report crime-related statistics for purposes of the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting System (ORS 181A.225). This includes data on the race of all arrested persons. The FBI’s system identifies five race categories for reporting: Asian or Pacific Islander, Black, American Indian or Alaskan Native, White, and Unknown. This list is found in the manuals for both the national Law Enforcement Data System (LEDS) of the National Crime Information Center (NCIC), and the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting Program. I feel the race categories determined by federal authorities are too narrow, don’t begin to reflect our diverse, multi-racial community, and in my view could reinforce stereotypes, and I’m encouraging them to expand those categories to more accurately reflect a diverse community. (It’s noteworthy the U.S. Census racial categories are also quite limited and include only five categories.) Using the data we and other law enforcement agencies provide them, the FBI compiles a wide range of crime-related statistics from across the country for trending and research. The most recent FBI report of Washington County can be viewed here and is also linked to our website.

I believe the best way to address claims of WCSO enforcement inequity is with facts, statistics, and analysis. And the Statistical Transparency of Policing Program helps me do that.

House Bill 2355 did much more than just create a workgroup that developed racial categories for stops. It also tasked the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission (CJC) to analyze law enforcement traffic and person stops to ensure fair and impartial policing practices. The analysis is modeled after similar programs in other states. All Oregon law enforcement agencies submit data to the Oregon CJC for analysis; agencies with over 100 officers reported in 2019; agencies with 51 to 100 officers will report in 2020 and remaining agencies in 2021. As a larger agency, we were fortunate to be one of the first twelve law enforcement entities to participate in the program.

The program requires collection of multiple data points by every law enforcement officer for each stop:

  • The date and time of the stop.
  • Its location.
  • The perceived race/ethnicity of the person stopped.
  • Their age and gender.
  • The legal basis for the stop.
  • The disposition of the stop: whether a warning, citation, or summons was issued, whether a search was conducted, the type of search conducted, whether criminal evidence was found as a result of the search, and whether an arrest was made.

CJC analysts issued a report on their findings related to the first twelve participating agencies on November 25, 2019. Analysts used multiple, evidence-based methods to identify if an agency has statistically significant indications of racial disparities. As the CJC issued its report, it clearly noted that, even if an indication of disparate outcomes is identified, it does not necessarily mean intentional bias is present. The analysts also note that the commonly used straight-line comparison of stops to census data of racial and ethnic categories has significant weaknesses and is not a best-practice.

Due to sample size and statistical modeling limitations, agency-specific analysis by the CJC is limited to White, Black, and Hispanic for all 12 large agencies. Their analysis of our data overall supports deputies make decisions based on facts and behaviors. However, by a small margin, there were two areas where results were outside predicted norms. To summarize the analysis of our data:

  • CJC analysts described the quality of WCSO data as the “gold standard.”
  • WCSO deputies stop White, Black, and Hispanic drivers and pedestrians at equitable rates.
  • WCSO deputies conduct searches of White, Black and Hispanic drivers and pedestrians at equitable rates.
  • As a result of searches, WCSO deputies find evidence or contraband equitably and with a high rate of success.
  • Rates of citations and arrests for White and Black drivers and pedestrians are equitable.
  • Rates of citations and arrests for Hispanic drivers and pedestrians are found to occur at higher rates. The predicted rate of arrest is 3.7%, while the actual rate of arrest is 4.7%. The predicted citation rate is 28.0%, whereas the actual rate is 32.1%.

Finding out that our rates of citations and arrests of Hispanic drivers and pedestrians occur at a slightly higher rate was initially alarming and clearly warrants further research and continued diligence. However, we believe we understand why the data shows this discrepancy. According to the Criminal Justice Commission research director, a higher rate of citations for unlicensed and suspended drivers could well account for this disparity, which is what we suspect. Indeed, our analysis confirms that records of our traffic citations show a higher proportion of Hispanic drivers cited for infractions of not having a driver’s license and driving-while-suspended, in addition to arrests for those who are suspended at the criminal level. Historically, deputies issue citations for these types of violations (rather than warnings). This is consistent with the public’s expectation that we take enforcement action if we find unlicensed or suspended drivers on the roadway.

We also believe that this higher proportion was largely due to the recently changed Oregon law that (previously) prohibited undocumented persons from obtaining a driver’s license. We strongly support efforts to increase driving license rates and are happy to partner in ways that support that goal. More licensed drivers mean safer roads and more insured drivers.

Thanks to House Bill 2355, we have facts, statistics, and analysis. And with our support, the Criminal Justice Commission has agreed to analyze the data further. I look forward to the results of this analysis and to continuing our efforts to ensure WCSO enforcement action is equitable across all racial categories.

As justice system representatives and good community partners, we work hard to build trust and achieve equitable outcomes so everyone in the county not only is safe, but feels safe. To this end, our training, standards, policy, and community work and plans include:

  1. After becoming sheriff in 2011, I decided to start collecting perceived race data from traffic stops because I wanted to be informed about its overall trends. I was convinced the data would become more important as our county grew in diversity, and being able to provide the data publicly was important for transparency.
  2. I support additional federal racial reporting categories to more accurately reflect diverse communities.
  3. We will explore expanding our racial reporting categories for booking inmates when we implement a new Jail data management system in late 2020.
  4. I supported passage of House Bill 2355, that created the Statistical Transparency of Policing Program, and I represented Oregon policing at the Governor’s bill signing ceremony.
  5. Implemented clear policy that prohibits profiling; we investigate all such complaints, which are rare.
  6. Our Traffic Safety Manual is underpinned, in part, by a prohibition against biased policing, prioritizing driver education, professionalism and courtesy when contacting drivers.
  7. For 15 years we have measured up to the high standards of professionalism, policy, leadership and accountability required of the National Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies and earned the Accreditation with Excellence Award during the last on-site inspection. Staying focused to meet high standards is part of our culture: our Jail professionals achieved 100% passing score on the 2019 Oregon Jail Standards inspection; our Jail Health Services are accredited by the National Commission on Corrections Healthcare; our Forensics Unit just earned International Accreditation.
  8. I look forward to being a member of Washington County’s Leadership Equity Council planned for 2020.
  9. Bias awareness training and facilitated discussions for staff began in 2015.
  10. Equity, Inclusion and Diversity training and discussions, most recently in 2019 following year-long research, trainer development and preparation. Our diverse training team is researching our next training iteration; several members serve on the County’s Staff Equity Committee.
  11. We are deploying body worn cameras that will provide a historical account of exactly what the deputy saw, heard and said during each enforcement action. Outfitting every deputy will take several years in the current budget plan. Body worn cameras are the biggest advancement in police transparency in my 31-year career. Deputies look forward to cameras recording their good work as well as providing evidentiary value.
  12. Hosted Department of Homeland Security Civil Rights Community Conference at Sheriff’s Office.
  13. Five years ago, I joined the director of the Muslim Educational Trust, the U.S. Attorney’s Office, our District Attorney’s Office and others to plan and conduct annual Building Bridges Seminars to bring regional law enforcement and justice officials together with diverse communities for workshops and discussions to build trust, mutual understanding and support.
  14. Co-host Hispanic Town Hall meetings in Cornelius with City officials.
  15. Partnering with Centro Cultural for events in Cornelius, with presentations and question and answer forums.
  16. Stood with the Director of Centro Cultural to debate Measure 105.
  17. Hosted Hispanic Town Hall meetings in Aloha.
  18. Partnering with area business to join in Indian Holi Festival celebrations for staff and families.
  19. Enjoy 18-year relationship with the diverse community at the Bilal Mosque in Aloha to collaborate across a range of issues; our leaders and deputies attend their open house events, and I have been honored to provide a greeting during Friday prayer gatherings.
  20. I have been honored to be recognized by the Muslim Educational Trust with a “Friends of the Muslim Educational Trust” award, and also by Central Cultural with the “Community Champion Award.” I would not have received these without the good work of our entire Sheriff’s Office.

The shadow cast by our nation’s history of systemic racial discrimination challenges all of us in law enforcement to continue our work to earn and deepen the trust our diverse communities have in us. The work can be made more challenging by national and regional events and circumstances out of our control. Law enforcement operates in a challenging environment with issues our society struggles to appropriately address, including homelessness, behavioral health, substance abuse disorder, and racial equity. We also accept that all of us have implicit bias. So we train to better recognize it, helping us avoid inaccurate conclusions and inequitable outcomes.

Our commitment to be bias-free involves multiple, interrelated systems. Complaint investigations and internal checks remain a critical part of guarding against bias-based policing. However, based on the excellent training, policy, and culture of high standards, professionalism, and compassion maintained by leaders and deputies, I am more confident than ever that deputies make decisions and base enforcement action on facts and behaviors. Initiatives like Oregon’s Statistical Transparency of Policing Program and strong laws against profiling are critical to improving justice system equity. Such laws need to be reinforced by agency policies and culture that prohibit profiling, along with agency training to protect against the negative impact of bias and strengthen support for equity, inclusion and diversity – all of which we’re doing at the Sheriff’s Office.

Pat