Multnomah analyst fired for sharing racial disparity data
Multnomah County has fired a criminal justice analyst tasked with researching racial disparities for presenting the data publicly without authorization.
As an employee of the county's Local Public Safety Coordinating Council, Amanda Lamb spearheaded the sort of project that wins Pulitzer Prizes for journalists: an in-depth, interactive racial and ethnic disparity "dashboard" that allowed users to examine in minute detail how criminal charges result in very different outcomes for defendants of different ethnicities.
But when Lamb gave a public presentation of her work at a national conference in Las Vegas in October, it triggered a backlash from judges, District Attorney Rod Underhill and her own employer-- leading her to be placed on administrative leave earlier this week, as the Portland Mercury first reported in articles last month and on Friday.
Shortly after news broke on Friday of her being placed on leave, the county sent Lamb notice that she had been terminated.
"Your last day of employment with Multnomah County is today, Friday, December 8, 2017, at close of business," said a copy of her termination letter that was released to media outlets on Friday afternoon.
The letter provides no reason for Lamb's termination.
County Communications Director Julie Sullivan-Springhetti confirmed that Lamb's disciplinary situation stemmed from sharing the data publicly without authorization.
"All over the county there is data that is sensitive and that people have access to in their jobs," Sullivan-Springhetti said. "The bottom line is she was not authorized to disclose the information and the county cannot overlook that."
Sullivan-Springhetti noted that county leaders have been vocal and aggressive about tackling racial disparities in the system. She said Lamb's situation did not amount to trying to "bury" news of those disparities.
But the extent to which political pressure contributed to the backlash against Lamb and her subsequent firing remains unclear. During her presentation in October, the analyst suggested that politics, not legalities, explained why her research had not been released earlier.
"It is not public yet. That's because it has been a really big challenge to try to build support," Lamb told her audience, as was reported by the Mercury last month. "It's not because people are trying to hide anything. This is just really sensitive to the people who are going to be held accountable by the system I've created."
Local officials, including Underhill and some local judges, questioned the accuracy of some of Lamb's hot-button conclusions, according to the Mercury article. In some cases the disparities shown were based on too few cases from which to fairly draw conclusions, some officials felt. The article quoted Multnomah Circuit Judge Ed Jones as saying discussion of the issue should "be driven by good rather than half-assed analysis."
Some of Lamb's work was also referenced in Unequal Justice, a series looking at racial and ethnic disparities in the justice system that was produced by the nonprofit journalism organzation InvestigateWest in partnership with the Pamplin Media Group, which includes the Portland Tribune.
At the time county officials had characterized Lamb's work as not intended to serve as proof of racism, but as a tool for policymakers and the public to zero in on specific areas where aspects of behavior, policing and the legal system may be combining to exacerbate disparities — and then consider ways to address them.
But others felt the topic is inherently prone to oversimplication. As Unequal Justice was reported, one former prosecutor questioned whether the county's portrayals of racial disparities in sentencing took into account the defendant's criminal history, which has an affect on sentences.
For Lamb, her situation may seem like deja vu. Last year Willamette Week reported that she was laid off from her previous job at the Multnomah County Sheriff's Office by then-Sheriff Dan Staton. The move came shortly after completing a report that found disparities in how corrections deputies in the county's jails applied use of force. Two of her other allies in pursuing reforms, research manager Shea Marshman and then-Lt. Brent Ritchie, felt her layoff was a result of her work and said they faced retaliation as well, according to the publication.
When Lamb's use of force report was finally disclosed by the Portland Tribune in February 2016, Staton claimed the report was faulty. He vowed to bring in an outside organization to redo the work and issue corrected numbers.
That was never done. Instead, Staton resigned under pressure and his replacement, Sheriff Mike Reese, called for a different report to focus not on racial disparities, but on other potential improvements concerning use of force.
Work hasn't been made public
News of the dashboard first began circulating at the county in late 2016. At the time, offiicals said the hangup was the need to negotiate a data-sharing agreement among the agencies contributing data to the project.
Despite early statements that the legal agreement could be forthcoming at any time, allowing Lamb's work on the dashboard to go public, those talks have been dragging on for more than a year.
However, they are now close to being concluded, Sullivan-Springhetti said.
Did Lamb give the presentation in Las Vegas without permission?
"I can't talk about the details but I can tell you that the reason that all of the public work has not been done is there is no signed inter-governmental agreement between the partners who actually own that data," Sullivan-Springhetti said.
Isn't all of the government's justice data a matter of public record?
"I really can't comment on the specifics," Sullivan-Springhetti said.
This would not be the first time officials dragged their feet on publicizing racial disparity data. A county report funded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation that included findings similar to Lamb's was completed in December 2015.
But after more than a month passed without officials releasing the report publicly, a coalition of activists lost patience. They held their own press conference in February 2016 to release the report and call for increased efforts to address the disparities.
In the 21 months since the release of that report, county officials and Underhill have announced a number of policy changes and new programs to reduce disparities in sentencing and jail time. In October plans were announced to build a 21-bed shelter and day treatment center for African-American women who are on probation or are have cases in mental health court, to serve as an alternative to jail.