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Report questions racial profiling

One committee member worries cop union’s study will set back progress
by: JIM CLARK, Robert King, the president of Portland’s police union, says a report funded by his union shows that police are not engaging in racial profiling.

As a committee set up by Mayor Tom Potter grapples with the issue of racial profiling in Portland, the police officers’ union has lobbed a potential conversation-stopper into the room — a report suggesting that the practice does not go on here. The 44-page report was funded by the union and conducted by Brian Withrow, a Wichita State University criminal justice professor who has conducted similar studies in other cities, as well as written a textbook on racial profiling. He found that the bureau’s system of tracking traffic stops by ethnicity is flawed and insufficient to prove or disprove the existence of racial profiling in Portland. However, he also cited data showing that black drivers make up twice the share of drivers pulled over at night as they do during daylight hours, when officers are more able to determine ethnicity — as evidence that racial profiling does not go on. Releasing the report, Portland Police Association President Robert King said it proves what he’s been saying all along: that his members do not let a person’s race affect the way they do their jobs. While for some people the racial profiling issue “is real,” he told the Portland Tribune, “You can’t conclude from the data that racial profiling is going on. … We deal with people as we’re supposed to, on the basis of their behavior.” The report actually was completed in January but has yet to be formally presented to Potter’s 14-member racial profiling committee. That is expected to happen next month, but committee co-chairwoman Jo Ann Bowman opposes taking up the report, noting that the committee was set up in January 2007 with a basic assumption that racial profiling does, in fact, take place. She has sent an e-mail to Chief Rosie Sizer, who is the other committee co-chairwoman, as well as to the hired committee moderator, asking that King not be allowed to present the study. “To go almost a year and a half into this process and then say, ‘hold on’ … to me is just undermining the work of the entire committee,” Bowman said. “I think we’re just starting to get to a place where people are stepping out of their comfort zone. “I believe that the report goes out of its way to justify why people of color are treated differently from other people,” she continued. “I think this is going to set us back a year, because it makes us go back into our corners and say, ‘Yes, it does,’ and, ‘No, it doesn’t.’ ” The Portland Police Bureau has been collecting data on stops by ethnicity since 2001. Withrow’s report focused mainly on the bureau’s 2006 numbers on traffic stops. Those 2006 numbers found that compared with population numbers, people of color are disproportionately stopped, arrested and searched. For instance, though the last U.S. census found that blacks are just 6 percent of the Portland-area population, in 2006 they made up 14 percent of all traffic stops, 23 percent of all vehicle searches and about the same proportion of resulting arrests — disparities that advocates say is proof enough that profiling is happening. Report calls data inadequate The issue is a hot-button one for cops, who interpret racial profiling to mean racism. Years ago, some officers conducted their own study to show that minorities commit a disproportionate amount of Portland’s crime — a position that some advocates view as itself being racist. Withrow, however, found that the bureau is not gathering enough details to prove “one way or the other” whether officers are letting race affect how they do their job. For instance, he said that it is deceptive to look at the number of searches conducted overall when some types of searches are discretionary while others are not. Withrow said more information would allow the bureau to determine whether officers are abusing their discretion to “hassle” people of color. He said the lack of analysis provided by the bureau for the data “makes it easy for a lay person to misconstrue the data.” Chief wants more training The findings of Withrow that King particularly seized upon concerned how often black drivers are stopped at night as compared to during the daytime. Withrow found that during daytime hours black drivers constitute 9.1 percent of all stops, while at night that figure grows to 17.3 percent of all stops. While Bowman found the report “appalling,” one of her allies, Dan Handelman of Portland Copwatch, said that its suggestions for better data collection could be useful. Sizer, however, does not seem interested in conducting another revamp of the bureau’s data collection, which already has gone through two incarnations. “How much money and energy do we want to put into data collection, as opposed to putting into building relationships with the community and building a knowledge base of officers of knowing how to deal with issues of race?” she said. “I don’t think we adequately prepare officers for how to deal with race issues. I know I wasn’t adequately prepared.” As for the debate over whether racial profiling by police happens here, she said, “I think all Americans are subject to racial stereotyping and that for most people it is a totally subconscious phenomenon. I can’t say it has never happened among Portland police officers, nor can I identify when it happens. “I think the antidote for the accusation of racial stereotyping is for officers to really know the community better and have a relationship with the community.” Not waiting for the committee’s recommendations, Sizer already has issued her own plan for how to address racial profiling, including better training, better monitoring of individual officers’ stops, and possibly requiring officers to issue a ticket or a warning every time they pull someone over. She said such an approach would let people know there is a legitimate reason for the stop — but also could lead to more tickets being issued. “I’m torn about that,” she said. But Sizer said she does not see any harm to King presenting the Withrow report at the profiling committee’s next meeting. “I think there’s been honestly a lot of tolerance on the committee for real diversity of opinion, and I don’t think it’s helpful to stymie one viewpoint or another.” This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.