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."

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