Austinites of color continue to be subjected to traffic stops at rates that far exceed their shares of the local population, according to the Austin Police Department's annual report on racial profiling, released on March 11. As this is not exactly surprising, justice advocates say the report is more interesting for what it leaves out than what it contains.
APD's report compiles the numbers of traffic stops, searches, and arrests by officers in 2021, broken down by racial demographic. It does include one surprise: Traffic stops declined dramatically – by 38% – from about 68,000 in 2020 to 42,520 last year. But the percentages of who got stopped are almost identical to those from the last five years. Black drivers accounted for 15% of those stopped, though they make up 7.5% of the city's population. Asians are also 7.5% of the population but made up only 5% of those stopped. Hispanics and whites, who represent 34% and 48% of the population, respectively, were stopped at rates closer to their shares of the population – 37% and 43%.
Officers made arrests in 2,920 of those stops, and these present a starker picture of institutional bias. Black people accounted for 18% of those arrested; Hispanics, 48%; whites, 32%; and Asians, 2%. In 64 of the arrests, officers used enough force to result in injuries. Black people made up 23% of those injured; Hispanics, 58%; whites, 27%; Asians, 3%.
"What we continue to see is people of color – in particular, Black people – just overrepresented in basically every type of outcome that relates to motor vehicle stops," said Chris Harris, the new policy director for Austin Justice Coalition. "I think it points to a combination of racial bias both in a structural sense – in terms of how the police operate, where they go, what they look for, what they prioritize – and of course, in some cases, personal bias on the part of individual officers."
Actions by individual officers is what the racial profiling report does not address, and that, Harris said, is by design – because the police lobby at the state and city levels works to restrict the disclosure of such data. "It would be great to see everything about how individual officers are interacting with people, you know, all of their interactions," Harris said. "When they're stopping people, is it on foot? Is it in a motor vehicle? What precipitated the stop? What was the outcome? Was there a search? What was the basis of the search? Did they find anything? Was there force used? Was there an arrest?"
Community advocates have criticized APD's data collection since at least 2019, saying that the department needs to include information on which officers are working in which neighborhoods and whether the stops they make are self-initiated or the result of being dispatched, among other things. A 2020 report by the Office of Police Oversight also urged APD to identify which officers make which stops. "APD has access to APD officer data that can be traced from year to year," the report reads. "Tracking officer-level data annually could serve to better observe and understand behavioral trends amongst officers."
APD's racial profiling report ends by making reference to another type of information that the police lobby works diligently to keep secret – the investigations of officers accused of misconduct, conducted by the department's Internal Affairs Division. The report lists 37 complaints of racially discriminatory behavior by officers that were received last year. Only one of them has, as of yet, been sustained. Harris noted that because APD is not required to divulge information on IA investigations unless they sustain a complaint, the public has little oversight of the process. "This report is the only window we have into any complaints that aren't sustained," he said. "Normally, we wouldn't even see the little bit of information we see in this report. So there's a lot of secrecy that continues to surround policing and particularly any misconduct by police."
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