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Community reacts to APD racial profiling study at Public Safety Commission

Wednesday, February 5, 2020 by Jessi Devenyns

Last week, a report from the city’s Office of Police Oversight, Office of Innovation, and Equity Office showed that black and Hispanic drivers are more likely to be stopped in their vehicles by Austin police than white and Asian drivers. Following the release of the report, the Public Safety Commission heard from the community and the Austin Police Department at its Feb. 3 meeting.

“I’m tired of hearing fluff, I want to hear answers,” said newly elected Chair Meghan Hollis. “It’s time for all of us to call out systemic racism and implicit bias.”

The report found that based on APD motor vehicle stop data for 2018, black people constituted 15 percent of those pulled over by police and 25 percent of those who were arrested. In Austin, the black population makes up roughly 8 percent of the total population. Hispanics accounted for 33 percent of vehicle stops and 44 percent of people pulled over and arrested by police although they represent 31 percent of the population. Whites, according to the data, had a negative chance of being pulled over. While Caucasians make up 54 percent of Austin’s population, they accounted for only 47 percent of traffic stops and 30 percent of those arrested as a result of being pulled over.

The disparities between motor vehicle stops and arrests between races have increased since 2015.

“It does not appear to be justified,” said Commissioner Chris Harris. He said the hit rate for searches is similar across racial groups but that the data indicate black populations are nevertheless arrested more frequently.

“We keep seeing the same results; it’s never different,” said Chas Moore, the executive director of the Austin Justice Coalition. “I think this is another prime example of why a lot of people who look like me don’t like this city.”

A new report on arrests resulting from drug possession for less than a gram from Texas Harm Reduction Alliance, Grassroots Leadership, the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition and the Civil Rights Clinic of the University of Texas School of Law showed similarly disproportionate results. Between 2017 and 2018, 44 percent of arrests for black people possessing less than a gram of a controlled substance originated from traffic stops. For Latinos arrested for the same level of possession, 57 percent of those cases came from a motor vehicle stop for a minor traffic violation.

Meme Styles, the founder of Measure, told commissioners that numerous other studies confirm the racial disparities in traffic stops. She cited a 2019 study that assessed 100 million traffic stops nationwide and showed that, on average, black drivers are 20 percent more likely to be stopped than white drivers. Still, she said, “I don’t know how many times I need to beg people to believe in data.”

Assistant Chief Troy Gay told commissioners the department believes the data are correct and that these racial disparities are real. “We really believe – just looking at populations – is that it is more complex,” he said. “There are disparities within the system.”

A memo from Police Chief Brian Manley addressing the persistent racial disparities in the department’s data said that “complex factors” lead to these disparate outcomes and that “failure to adequately address the complexities of the issue can mislead the public and policymakers about the various causes of the disparities.” Chief Manley called for an “independent, comprehensive, and evidence-informed assessment of the department’s enforcement practices, cultural norms and customs … and any resulting racial disparities.”

“To me this is innuendo,” said Commissioner Rebecca Webber. “The main action the department is going to take is to continue to litigate whether or not we can rely on this data.”

The department is currently discussing how to address the disparities in racial equity when it comes to policing, according to Assistant Chief Gay. One initiative that was outlined in the report released last week uses data to intervene when officers appear to be over-policing black and Hispanic people. Gay said the department will be posting a position for a chief data officer.

He also pointed out that the data from 2019 will differ from prior years since it is the first full year that the Freedom City policies were in effect. These policies include efforts to reduce discretionary arrests for certain nonviolent misdemeanors in favor of citations. Gay said that as a result, arrests of black persons dropped from 477 individuals in 2017 to 70 individuals in 2019. “We’re making strides,” he said.

Community members and commissioners agreed that the next step is to begin addressing solutions.

Moore said that until the police department begins taking action and working to reduce racial disparities in policing, the data are the equivalent of “the real-life version of the meme of the dog sitting in the burning house drinking his coffee.”

Photo by Edward Kimmel from Takoma Park, MD [CC BY-SA 2.0].

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