Race study proves nothing: Experts

By Tamsin McMahon
Local News - Saturday, June 25, 2005 @ 07:00

The newspaper headline read: “The truth about racial profiling.”

Staring up from below it were mug shots of the Toronto police department’s 20 most wanted suspects, a motley crew of murderers and rapists.

Some were heavyset; others were thin. Some looked like they could be a next door neighbour, while others might as well have had the word “criminal” etched into their foreheads.

But there was one unmistakable thread that bound them together: Most of the faces were black.

The message was clear: The real truth about the recent King-ston Police study that found officers were stopping blacks more frequently than whites wasn’t that police were guilty of racial profiling. If police were targeting blacks, it was because they caused more trouble.

The newspaper story and photospread were part of the strong reaction that followed the release by Kingston Police of an analysis of a year-long pilot project in which officers recorded the race of every person they stopped.

The analysis concluded that blacks are stopped three times as often as whites in Kingston.

As the first study in Canada to examine the race and ethnicity of everyone stopped by police, it wasn’t surprising that the report out of Kingston should face scrutiny – from the minority groups who demanded swift action to the police union who sought to discredit the findings.

But while Kingston Police came under fire, so too did the city’s small black community of about 700 people, the vast majority of whom are law-abiding citizens.

Where were the statistics, critics demanded, showing which racial or ethnic groups committed the most crime?

The tug-of-war between those who see such police statistics as evidence of racial profiling and those who see them as proof that crime can be explained by skin colour is nothing new to social scientists in the U.S., where a small industry has sprung up dedicated to studying racial profiling.

Those who have observed the same process unfolding in the U.S. for the past seven or eight years offer a warning.

The kind of race-based statistics that Kingston Police collected aren’t proof of anything. Not racial profiling, nor the colour of crime.

Rather, they say, in the right hands, this kind of statistical information can be the springboard for police to repair frayed relations with visible minorities.

In the wrong hands, it can be fodder for accusations that only drive a deeper wedge between officers and the communities they police.

“The debate isn’t going to be settled by someone saying, ‘Here’s the evidence, you’re right or you’re wrong,’ ” said Amy Farrell, associate director of the Institute on Race and Justice at Northeastern University in Boston, which runs a racial profiling data collection resource centre.

“It has to be seen as a tool for dialogue, not as an end result. Where police departments get into a lot of trouble is when they see this as a pass-or-fail test.”

The research exploring whether some racial groups are responsible for more crime is both contradictory and incomplete.

In the U.S., African-Americans make up about 13 per cent of the population, but account for a staggering one million of the country’s two million prisoners.

Yet a national study comparing drug use to drug convictions found that while about 13 per cent of blacks admitted to using drugs, more than 70 per cent of those imprisoned for drug possession or trafficking were black.

In New Jersey, a 2001 study found black and Hispanic drivers were more likely to speed in excess of 15 miles/

hour over the limit on the New Jersey Turnpike when the speed limit was 65 miles/hour, but not when it was 55 miles/hour.

The study was largely discredited because the three researchers couldn’t agree on the race of the driver a third of the time.

A similar study in Nevada in 2003 examined 400,000 police stops and came up with the opposite conclusion: blacks and Hispanics were less likely to speed than other demographic groups.

“We really haven’t moved beyond that debate,” said Khalil Muhammad, a post-doctoral fellow in race, crime and justice at the Vera Institute of Justice in New York City.

“The central question of how much the statistics really reflect reality is very much up for grabs.”

In Canada, the Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics, an arm of Statistics Canada, isn’t allowed to collect data on race and crime.

But a Corrections Canada study of the racial makeup of federal offenders paints a different image from the stereotypical poor, uneducated black offender.

The study, published last June, found that visible minority offenders tended to be younger than their white counterparts. They were also more likely to be married, better educated and employed at higher rates at the time of arrest compared to whites.

They tended to have shorter criminal records and were therefore serving shorter sentences and were considered a lower risk to reoffend.

Visible minorities fared better when they were released from prison and were less likely to escape.

A large proportion of black inmates were doing time for robbery, while whites were more likely to be serving homicide sentences.

“Visible minority offenders seem to be less ‘entrenched’ in the criminal lifestyle than Caucasian offenders,” the report stated.

Blacks were also less likely to be deemed dangerous offenders – a label reserved for those whose crimes are so heinous, or their behaviour so incorrigible, that they are locked up indefinitely.

Of the 111 dangerous offenders incarcerated in Ontario, 97 are white and three are black. Seven are Aboriginal, two are Metis, one is Asian and another is Inuit.

Proportionally, it means 87 per cent of the most dangerous federal prisoners in Ontario are white.

Whites make up about 81 per cent of the province’s population.

Scot Wortley, the University of Toronto criminologist who analysed the Kingston Police statistics, has also been studying the issue of race and crime.

He conducted a study asking youth to report on their own criminal behaviour. It found black youths were slightly more likely to belong to criminal gangs and engage in minor violent behaviour and property crime.

White youths were much more likely to report serious drug abuse and just as likely as black youth to be involved in drug trafficking.

He also found that because of profiling of street gangs, black youths who committed crimes were more likely to get caught.

Members of traditionally black street gangs in Toronto reported that they were starting to recruit whites to transport drugs across the city because they were less likely to be stopped by police.

But social scientists say the debate over crime by race isn’t relevant to studying the colour of people stopped by police.

Comparing crime statistics to vehicle stops is bad practice because criminals on parole aren’t often the same people being pulled over for a broken taillight, said Lorie Fridell of the University of South Florida, who has authored several books on how to collect and interpret data on racial profiling.

Karen Mock, executive director of the Canadian Race Relations Foundation, says it’s not a question of who commits more crime.

“It’s a question of who gets arrested for committing more crimes,” said Mock. “So that discussion is like throwing a red herring into the mix.”

Of the more than 8,000 people stopped by Kingston Police during the yearlong pilot project, only 21 per cent of blacks and 23 per cent of whites were ticketed or charged with a crime.

If police officers were hoping to catch criminals when they stopped vehicles and pedestrians, they didn’t find them nearly 80 per cent of the time.

Toronto’s most wanted suspects aren’t likely to be caught using random vehicle stops, said University of Windsor law professor David Tanovich, who has acted as a lawyer in several racial profiling cases.

“When police are going out and engaging in proactive policing, they’re not looking for the 10 most wanted,” he said.

John Lamberth, a private consultant to U.S. law-enforcement agencies who designed the country’s first methods of studying racial profiling, also set out to study the reasons for traffic stops.

He gave officers five minutes to decide if randomly selected vehicles were breaking traffic laws.

Lamberth found that 94 per cent of drivers were breaking the law and it took officers an average of 28 seconds to spot them.

The conclusion Lamberth drew was that virtually every driver is, at any given time, breaking one of the hundreds of traffic laws, from speeding to seat-belt violations.

The question became: If police can justify every traffic stop, why do some people get caught when others don’t?

The quandary, along with a series of high-profile police shootings of unarmed black and Hispanic men, prompted police departments to start collecting data on the race of those they stopped.

Some departments began collecting the information as part of court settlements in racial profiling lawsuits. Others began voluntarily studying traffic stops as a way to combat growing allegations of racial profiling.

“They were sort of caught with their pants down in that they didn’t have any information with which to counter these claims,” said Northeastern University’s Farrell.

State governments also got involved in the debate and today about half of the U.S. states have some kind of order in place banning racial profiling or ordering police to collect race-based statistics.

It wasn’t surprising that the data collection projects centred around traffic stops: It’s one of the most common police activities but, until now, one of the least studied.

“We spend tremendous amounts of money on traffic stops that involve a huge number of officers and yet we don’t know anything about them,” Farrell said. “They’ve sort of been the ugly stepchild of law enforcement.”

When police departments were met with allegations of racial profiling, the universal response was to focus on collecting statistics at the expense of developing policies, training or outreach programs, said University of South Florida’s Fridell.

That focus created false expectations that somehow crunching numbers was going to end the debate.

“We can’t even measure crime,” Fridell said. “What makes us think we can get officers to fill out forms and measure what goes on inside their heads?”

As it turned out in the U.S., thousands of studies by police across the country showing officers stop black drivers more than white drivers haven’t done anything to debunk the myth that blacks commit more crime.

“Most people in this country go to bed at night assuming that African-Americans are more likely to be criminals and that it’s prudent to keep an eye on them if they happen to live next door,” Muhammad said.

Ottawa’s deputy police chief, Larry Hill, said he expects most police departments across Canada will be collecting race-based statistics within 10 years. But if the numbers aren’t good for gauging racial profiling or abolishing stereotypes, for what are they useful?

On one hand, studies that have shown a huge gap between the number of minority and white drivers stopped by police have been accepted by courts as evidence of racial profiling in both criminal cases and civil suits, Farrell said.

The Kingston Police study could have an impact on court cases in the Kingston area, said prominent human rights lawyer Julian Falconer.

“What the Kingston report tells us is certain groups of persons, African-Canadians, are, in fact, treated in a fashion very distinctive from other people in the community,” he said. “I certainly am of the view that a plaintiff in a racial profiling claim in Kingston would be entitled to rely upon the report as evidence of a systemic reality that makes it more likely than not that his particular claim occurred.”

People may be more willing to raise the issue of racial profiling in court, Falconer said, but he didn’t expect an avalanche of lawsuits against police.

“In all my years of practice, I’ve never seen a flood of lawsuits on any given thing,” he said.

The Kingston report might also shift the burden of proof onto the police to prove that racial profiling wasn’t a factor in a particular incident, said the University of Windsor’s Tanovich.

Even if courts acknowledge that racial profiling exists in a general sense, complainants still must prove it happened to them, he said.

The numbers can also be used by police departments to judge whether they are spending their resources effectively, Fridell said.

Departments that find that concentrating their efforts on stopping cars in high-crime neighbourhoods hasn’t cut down on problems might want to invest in more street-level detectives and put the traffic officers in areas where there are a lot of collisions, she said.

The fact that in Kingston so many police stops yielded no arrests or tickets could mean that police are engaging in “fishing expeditions.”

Cast your net enough times, the theory goes, and you might just catch a criminal.

“Shooting fish in a barrel is not a good way to do policing,” Farrell said.

Fridell recommends that police departments create a “racial profiling task force” made up of members of visible minority communities, along with senior managers and patrol officers, to handle the results of data collection programs.

Ideally, these task forces should be set up before the results are released and preferably before police even design their study, she said.

The task force should hold a series of meetings to build trust and listen to community concerns, similar to the town hall meetings that Kingston Police Chief Bill Closs called before starting the data collection project.

Once the results are released, the task force should go back and do a more detailed analysis, Fridell said, to decide whether the results can be explained by biased policing or by something else, such as other problems in the organization.

Then, she recommends, the task force should decide on specific reforms, including recruiting more visible minority officers, designing training and community outreach programs, and researching external funds to pay for them.

The task force could also be involved in improving the study’s methodology.

It may not even be necessary for Kingston Police to create new policies and training if such programs already exist, Fridell said.

Opinions differ on whether Kingston Police should continue collecting and analysing race-based statistics.

The research is expensive and if it does nothing to improve relations with minority communities, then it’s not worth the money, Fridell said.

But Farrell said a short-term study isn’t a good way of measuring a long-standing problem that requires a long-term solution.

“A one-time, one-year study, that’s a bad model,” she said. “Then people think, ‘I can make it through the end of the study.’ This is a complex problem and the perception of it is real.”

The most compelling reason for collecting race-based statistics is to sensitize police to the issues in the community, Fridell said.

To that end, in the U.S., data collection programs have helped.

Fridell was involved in a 2001 survey of U.S. police chiefs that found few believed racially biased policing existed.

“I’d love to do that survey today,” she said. “I think more and more chiefs in the U.S. are taking this very seriously. There’s a different mindset now.”

The best response for a police department to the growing controversy over racial profiling is to acknowledge that bias policing exists, Fridell said, regardless of what the studies say.

“Whether they look at the data and say, ‘We have an issue we need to address’ or ‘We don’t have an issue,’ the bottom line is every jurisdiction in Canada and the U.S. and, who knows, maybe the world, should be thinking about it,” she said. “You don’t need data collection to know you have to do something.”