Sure, the council's study will give number crunchers plenty to do for a year, and it might produce stats on how staggering the disproportionality is. But it won't answer the crucial question: Is racial profiling to blame for the disproportionate traffic stops? The city council, however, is willing to spend $105,000 on the pointless study. That's an insult: They're throwing a bone to Seattle's liberals and minority communities, pretending to do something about a serious problem. In reality, this study is no fix for police/minority relations--it's like putting a Band-Aid on a compound fracture.
Over the past few months, Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske, the Seattle Police Officers Guild, and even a few dissident council members have raised legitimate concerns over the proposed study's methods and potential outcome. Thankfully, Mayor Greg Nickels has listened to the criticism, and it looks like he won't obey the council's Band-Aid solution. While the council's 5-2 vote allows him to spend the cash, he isn't mandated to do it. So he's calling on Kerlikowske to help draft a different plan that (we hope) won't waste money finding out something we already know--that, proportionally, more blacks than whites are pulled over and ticketed.
The chief's input will be critical. His criticisms of the council's proposed study are right on target. First, no amount of data collection can tell us whether racial profiling is to blame. The council knows that the study will be blatantly ineffective. While the numbers could show that blacks are more likely to be pulled over than whites, it wouldn't clearly show whether that is because of biased policing or because of circumstance (i.e., there's a higher ratio of blacks driving in a certain neighborhood). City Council Member Richard McIver, the lone black voice on the council, has said that the council should cut to the chase and try to fix police relations with minority communities instead of studying them.
Second, Kerlikowske notes that the council hasn't outlined a way to analyze the data, which would essentially leave the city with a pile of numbers and no statistical baseline with which to interpret them.
"Without a very clear and specific plan on how [the data] will be analyzed, it's a recipe for disaster," the chief told the council's police committee. "It's a bit of a disservice to have this proposal with so little specificity and direction."
To analyze the data, a consultant would need a benchmark, or a baseline, with which to compare the numbers. The most thorough--and costliest--way to establish such a baseline is to dispatch researchers to Seattle's intersections and record who drives the streets, heading where, and at what time of day. Another kind of benchmark, one that's census-based, falls short because the people who live in a neighborhood aren't the only ones who drive there.
Council Member Jim Compton, chair of the police committee and sponsor of the resolution behind the study, says the only way for Seattle to get a benchmark is to start gathering data. "You can't invent [benchmarks], you have to collect them," he explains. While he has a point, his resolution didn't include that plan.
Kerlikowske has proposed a practical alternate solution that he's willing to sign off on: create a "warning ticket"--which wouldn't carry a penalty and could be issued for stops stemming from minor car problems like dim headlights--and analyze those in conjunction with existing stats on citations, arrests, and searches. That would catch data on almost every cop-citizen interaction, without an extraneous study.
Plus, Kerlikowske says, most racial profiling complaints stem from stops that would be covered by warning tickets (like dim headlights). Documenting those stops might curb the perception that they are a pretext to check up on minorities.
The mayor and two city council members have paid attention to Kerlikowske's comments and other criticisms like his.
"I don't need a study to tell me that very few of our officers racially profile," says Council Member Judy Nicastro, who voted against the study. "It's a complete waste of money. It delays real action. The African American community deserves better." Council Member Jan Drago voted against it too. And a few months back, Council Member McIver--who voted for the study last week--stuck his neck out and proposed diverting the money from the redundant study (then $211,000) into video cameras for police cars; however, he ultimately compromised and voted to split the funds between cameras and a study ($105K each).
The data collection study is obviously a politically charged issue, but there's more to it than the council tiptoeing around race relations. Mayor Nickels is also making a calculated political move by inviting Chief Kerlikowske to his office: He's helping patch things up between the chief and the police guild. The Seattle Police Officers Guild--whose members overwhelmingly voted no-confidence in the chief this spring--is paying close attention to what the chief is saying, because cops are wary of data collection and the scrutiny it would bring.
Getting the guild's blessing would be an ace in the hole for both Kerlikowske and the mayor. Not only does standing up for the officers' concerns earn Kerlikowske badly needed respect from the guild, but the guild's stamp of approval would make it easier for the city to implement a study.
There's a side benefit to the chief's involvement too: No matter what the study finds (disproportionality or not), the police department can't cry foul if the chief has endorsed it.