APD Consent Searches Decrease
Consent searches often linked to racial profiling
By Jordan Smith,
12:02PM, Wed. Mar. 28, 2012
Here’s a bit of good news, as Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo sees it, taken from the department’s annual racial profiling report: Consent searches by Austin officers decreased in 2011 – from about 1,100 in 2010 to less than 700 last year.
To Acevedo, that means his officers are doing a better job of considering carefully – and articulating, when questioned – reasons they want to search a motorist when they don’t otherwise have a legal reason to do so.
That is, when officers have probable cause to know that something illegal is afoot – say you’re driving with dope in the car and it’s just sitting there on the seat when you’re pulled over for speeding along I-35 – they don’t need to ask permission to search. But if there are other “criminal indicators” that spark an officer’s interest but that don’t rise to the level of probable cause, says Acevedo (though he wouldn’t provide examples of those indicators), it is perfectly fine for an officer simply to ask a motorist (or passenger or pedestrian, for that matter) for permission to search person or property. But consent searches are easily misused and, when they occur often, considered an indication of possible problems with racial profiling by officers, police and civil rights advocates agree.
As such, seeing Austin’s consent search numbers decrease is likely a good thing. Moreover, says Acevedo, the “hit rate” for the consent searches that do happen – the percentage of searches that end with cops finding contraband – has gone up, which he argues is another indication that police are using the privilege to ask for a search sparingly and in situations where criminal dealings are suspected. In other words, “We want to get the bad guys off the road, but we don’t want to use it as a fishing expedition,” he says. “We emphasize with folks that you need to be able to articulate why you’ve asked for a search.”
Jim Harrington, executive director of the Texas Civil Rights Project, says the report shows progress but there are still issues to be dealt with. Indeed, according to the numbers provided to the City Council in APD’s annual report, just 5.9% of the 11,719 searches that occurred in 2011 were consent searches, of which 28% were of whites, while 32% were of blacks and 39% were of Hispanics. According to 2010 Census data, whites make up 49% of Austin’s population, while Hispanics comprise 35%, and blacks make up 8% of the total population. “It shows there are still problems, but I think [this is] a good process because it has had the effect of [reducing profiling] – at least it’s not as blatant,” says Harrington. “Transparency is good.”
Still, Harrington argues that “consent” is a tricky term – “what does that mean?” he asks. Does a person feel able to refuse? Legally, of course, refusal is fine, though whether a person feels safe in doing so is a different story. (Police and rights advocates agree that if faced with a request for consent to search, it’s perfectly logical to ask an officer to articulate the reasons before consenting.)
On another note, the annual report reveals that the total number of APD traffic stops – typically to issue a traffic citation – decreased last year to 179,882 from 232,848 in 2010. That doesn’t not mean, however, that Austin drivers overall have improved. Rather, Acevedo believes the decrease shows that the targeted patrol of major corridors (I-35, Highway 183, MoPac) is working: “We put the emphasis on major corridors … to create much better visibility [of officers] in order to change people’s behaviors,” he says. Going forward, Acevedo says, the department will be moving that culture-changing strategy to the rest of the city. “We don’t want to leave any area out of teaching people” to drive more safely. “We want that mentality throughout the city,” he says.
You can find the entire report here.