Profiling Racial Profiling

On Feb. 28, the Austin Police Dept. released its first report on "racial profiling," as required under a 2001 state law. In a memo to the City Council, APD Chief Stan Knee wrote that the racial and ethnic background of drivers stopped by APD last year "roughly mirrors" Austin's demographics. But other indicators -- e.g., the number of people searched in 2002 -- present a more complicated picture, because minorities were far more likely to be searched than whites.

"There is cause for concern," said economist Dwight Steward, a former UT professor who worked on a racial-profiling report compiled last year by the Texas NAACP. What Steward found in the Austin figures, he says, generally coincides with other Texas cities: The number of stops approximately reflects Austin's demographic makeup -- 53% white, 30% Hispanic, 10% African-American -- but the number of people searched appears skewed along racial lines. "The search rate seems out of line with what you'd expect," Steward said. "It is almost impossible to know the race of a person before you stop them," he said. "But [with search stats] you can see what is happening once you do stop them."

The report, although quite brief, does reflect significant discrepancies in the stop/search comparisons. The report distinguishes between traffic and pedestrian stops and between "consent searches" (done with permission) and "frisk searches" (pat-downs at officers' discretion). There were approximately 184,600 stops of all kinds, and approximately 22,000 searches.

Vehicle stops create relatively few searches, but both blacks and Hispanics were more than twice as likely to be searched as whites. The differences for pedestrian stops are not as dramatic yet still significant: Of African-American pedestrians stopped, 42.3% were searched; of Hispanics, 33.6% were searched; but of whites, only 27.1% were searched. However, according to the department, the searches of whites proved more likely to discover contraband.

Austin Police Monitor Iris Jones said she has "some concerns" about the data and hopes to seek an independent review. She found the APD report lacking information required by law, including the number and disposition of Internal Affairs complaints related to racial profiling, and a departmental analysis of the results.

Austin Police Association President Mike Sheffield said he thinks the statistics are generally encouraging. "Racial profiling is not a policy or pattern of practices within this police department," he said. "The department has strong policies in place and a strong commitment to the public and officers that there will be no racial profiling." However, he said, there is always a question where "good policing ends and racial profiling begins," he said. "You're never going to get a perfect match, and I think some people are looking for that to explain the anomalies in this report."

Got something to say? The Chronicle welcomes opinion pieces on any topic from the community. Submit yours now at

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for over 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

More by Jordan Smith
'Chrome Underground' Goes Classic Car Hunting
'Chrome Underground' Goes Classic Car Hunting
Motoreum's Yusuf & Antonio talk about the biz and their reality TV debut

May 22, 2014

APD Brass Shifts Up, Down, Across
APD Brass Shifts Up, Down, Across
Musical chairs at Downtown HQ

May 9, 2014

One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Can't keep up with happenings around town? We can help.

Austin's queerest news and events

Eric Goodman's Austin FC column, other soccer news

Behind the scenes at The Austin Chronicle

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle