BEFORE SHE laid out Multnomah County’s troubling racial disparities to conference attendees in October, Amanda Lamb acknowledged that the subject matter wasn’t easy.
“When you have the speaker’s badge, people like to ask you what your presentation is on,” Lamb told people who’d come to hear her present at the Tableau Conference, a huge gathering of data geeks in Las Vegas. “When I tell them the title of my presentation, it kind of shuts down the conversation almost immediately.”
Now, the presentation (titled “Racial and Ethnic Disparity in Criminal Justice: Measurement, Monitoring, and Accountability”) has shut down Lamb’s employment, too.
In a swift turn of events first reported by the Mercury, the Multnomah County research analyst was placed on paid leave last Wednesday, December 6, and formally fired two days later—all because she shared racial disparity data from various parts of the county justice system without formal permission.
“As an employer, we can’t overlook the unauthorized disclosure of information,” county spokesperson Julie Sullivan-Springhetti said last week. “That’s what this is about. This is not about the disparities she was discussing at the Tableau Conference.”
The firing came two months after Lamb’s appearance at the conference, and roughly a month after the Mercury reported that the presentation had caused heartburn for justice officials, who questioned its accuracy. But Lamb’s termination—the second time she’s lost a job after airing racial disparity data—hasn’t sat well with many, inspiring a chorus of criticism on social media.
“Wouldn’t it be cool if MultCo was as quick and clear about remedying disparate treatment of its residents as it is about firing people it doesn’t like??” tweeted Nkenge Harmon Johnson, president of the Urban League of Portland.
Wouldn't it be cool if MultCo was as quick and clear about remedying disparate treatment of its residents as it is about firing people it doesn't like?? https://t.co/ObJakynNKV— Nkenge (@TrueNkenge) December 10, 2017
The City Club of Portland weighed in on Twitter as well, writing: “There are important questions here about the public’s right to know and the duty of a public servant to inform. Is it important that this disparity data be kept locked away? And important to/for whom?”
That tweet was enough to warrant a retort from Multnomah County, which tweeted: “We’ve never shied away from owning the disparities we have in Multco. We’re the people who asked for the dashboard, hired the staff & have been working to make it public. We have a personnel issue & we have a disparities issue. Two different things.”
We've never shied away from owning the disparities we have in Multco. We’re the people who asked for the dashboard, hired the staff & have been working to make it public. We have a personnel issue & we have a disparities issue. Two different things. https://t.co/1mO28HIo0y— Multnomah County, OR (@multco) December 10, 2017
Lamb, meanwhile, hasn’t responded to emails seeking comment. In 2015, she was laid off from the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office after issuing a report about racial disparities in county jails.
Judges, the county’s district attorney, and others told the Mercury last month that they were blindsided by Lamb’s October 10 presentation. As local analysts watched it online in real time, concerns circulated that Lamb hadn’t been authorized to share the information—a preview of a “racial and ethnic disparities dashboard” officials have been working on for much of the last year. Officials said part of Lamb’s access agreement to sensitive information was that she wouldn’t share it without permission.
Some complained she’d unfairly painted local officials as reluctant to share data that suggests, for instance, that Black people in the county are 4.2 times more likely to be booked into jail than white people, and more likely to be prosecuted as well.
“It is not public yet,” Lamb said during the presentation. “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.”
Others called her conclusions misleading, questionable, or, in the words of Multnomah County Chief Criminal Judge Ed Jones, “half-assed analysis.”
The blowback was strong enough that Lamb’s boss, Abbey Stamp, asked that footage of the presentation be scrubbed from the web (the Mercury obtained a copy via a public records request). But there wasn’t a hint that Lamb would be fired for what she shared with her audience on October 10. Stamp, discussing the matter last month, said it was a “misunderstanding.”
“We’re approaching how to avoid these kerfuffles in the future,” she said. “Her passion on this is palpable.”
At the time, District Attorney Rod Underhill told the Mercury that Lamb had apologized, and he appeared to be satisfied that she believed she’d made a mistake. Local court officials, meanwhile, were concerned about Lamb’s characterizations, and believed they’d been cast in an unfairly negative light.
“I’ve gotten up in a lot of presentations and said, ‘We’ve got disparities in the criminal justice system... and we absolutely need to commit, and we need data to hold ourselves accountable,’” Presiding Judge Nan Waller said last month. But, she added, “I want the presentation correct so we know what the issues are.”
Officials have repeatedly told the Mercury they are hoping to make the racial-disparity data available to the public. What’s less clear is whether it already should be. Under Oregon public records law, data created by public bodies is routinely subject to disclosure, with limited exemptions.
On Monday, December 11, the Mercury asked Sullivan-Springhetti what, if any, exemptions the county would cite if we requested the data Lamb shared. We did not hear back by our print deadline on December 12.
Meanwhile, the county’s letter [PDF] informing Lamb she’d been fired was clear: She wasn’t allowed to share any more.
“Please return any and all County property, including any and all data obtained from or through any computer data system to which you had access...” read the letter. “Bear in mind that because you are no longer employed by Multnomah County, you are not authorized to possess any such data, or share any such data with, or transmit any such data to, any person not employed by Multnomah County.”