Playing a New Race Card 

What's Behind Disparity in Traffic Stops? Maybe Racism, Cops Admit

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THE PROBLEM is familiar. According to the latest batch of traffic data released by the Portland Police Bureau, covering all stops in 2010, cops continue to pull over and search African Americans and Latinos about twice as often as white Portlanders.

Also familiar, if equally troubling, is the idea that cops are targeting blacks and Latinos in what accountability advocates see as "fishing expeditions." According to a review of the data by Portland Copwatch and the Albina Ministerial Alliance (AMA), whites are way more likely to have contraband like weapons or drugs, even though they're searched far less often.

But here's what's new—the Portland Police Bureau has swallowed hard and finally admitted something it's often struggled to say: Part of the problem might really be racism. Overt, institutional, and even "implicit" racism—which means you might be a little racist without even realizing it.

Historically, the bureau has denied racism might play a role in traffic stops and searches, instead solely blaming other factors like socioeconomics, crime rates, and targeted actions like flooding so-called gang "hot spots" with extra cops.

"Context is important. But owning [potential racism] is important, too," Sergeant Greg Stewart, a member of the bureau's three-year-old stat-crunching team, told the Mercury. "We don't want to make excuses, either."

And, in another change, the bureau explicitly isn't disputing the analysis by Copwatch or the AMA. Instead, at the June 20 meeting of the city's Community and Police Relations Committee (CPRC), where the bureau first unveiled the data, Assistant Chief Larry O'Dea thanked the two groups for their work.

Cops and observers say two factors are behind the bureau's shift: The first is an increasing reliance—part of a national trend—on statistics and research. The second is the bureau's ongoing scramble, in a time of budget austerity, to do more with less. Improving cops' "legitimacy," as Stewart explained in the CPRC meeting, means they'll spend less time on routine calls and more time on serious cases.

As such, the changes brought cautious plaudits from accountability advocates who've spent years tilting with bureau officials over racial profiling.

"It's a huge jump from where we were," says Dan Handelman of Portland Copwatch, who remembers when some cops didn't want the city's old "racial profiling" committee to be named as such.

AMA member JoAnn Hardesty, who co-chaired that committee with then-Police Chief Rosie Sizer, agreed the cops' rhetorical shift is a "huge step forward." But she also said it won't mean much if nothing changes.

"Young people in this community are being stopped on a daily basis, and they have to justify why they're in the community they're in," she said at the CPRC meeting. "If we want to do policing differently, we have to think differently. We certainly can't keep stopping people because they're black or brown."

Stewart, who's been taking classes in statistics and geographic mapping at Portland State, says that's part of what his stat-crunching unit is working toward. The bureau has finished phasing in new traffic-stop reporting forms, a bid to collect better data about how, why, and when cops decided to stop and search people.

Are cops' "discretionary" searches the biggest problem? Is it just that more kids are out of school in the summer? Is it gang enforcement in black neighborhoods?

"Right now, we don't know any of that," says Stewart. "Maybe we can find better tactics. Maybe there are alternative ways of doing things."

Stewart hopes to release a limited analysis of 2011 data this September and then issue a full review of 2012 data next year.

The reality, though, is that some tactics may not change. "Hot spot" enforcement might snare a disproportionate number of black kids, but the bureau may decide it can't afford to do something else. But Stewart says the bureau would at least be able to tell people why.

"If we don't explain ourselves," he says, "that's on us."

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