Early warning system to spot racial profiling in Cincinnati police should be back by January

Posted at 5:23 PM, May 31, 2017
and last updated 2017-06-01 11:39:37-04

CINCINNATI -- A system to spot racial profiling in Cincinnati's police department should be back online by January, more than a year after WCPO first uncovered a growing gap between the number of black and white drivers stopped.

A prototype may be ready sooner, sometime in the fall. Work has been underway for months, but it's complex: Leigh Tami, who oversees the city's Office of Performance and Data Analytics, says there's "heavy lifting" to restore it since the city abandoned the effort five years ago.

Her office is adding another staffer to help. City Council still has to approve the new job in the upcoming budget.

The end goal is a nearly real-time warning if an officer pulls over more black or white drivers than their peers, Tami told City Manager Harry Black in a memo.

Although traffic stops are down over the past seven years, the I-Team found enforcement has eased up on white drivers more than black drivers, raising questions about why it's happening and if there's a problem that needs to be fixed.

Through September 2016, nearly 63 percent of drivers stopped by Cincinnati police were black -- while black residents make up a little less than 43 percent of the city's population, according to the most recent U.S. Census Bureau estimate.

The I-Team discovered the trend last October and asked police officials, including Chief Eliot Isaac, what was driving it. They had no immediate, definitive answers but promised to find out.

And the I-Team found the early warning system, a major part of the city's landmark Collaborative Agreement, had ended in 2012 under former chief James Craig and city manager Milton Dohoney Jr. Isaac and Black said in November they'd bring it back, blaming budget woes for the prior administration's decision to end the work.


Tami's office started putting together different datasets in January and February, to get the best possible idea of officers' work on patrol. Among the data they're reviewing:

  • the officer's assignment
  • where the stop happened
  • the officer's race, gender and age
  • the race, gender and age of people stopped
  • how long the stop lasted
  • whether the person got a ticket or was searched or arrested

That information is coming from several places, Tami said, including case data, dispatch records, officer assignments and "contact cards," which officers have to complete for every traffic stop.

All the information is needed for a complete analysis, because experts warn a racial disparity doesn't necessarily mean officers are engaged in racial profiling. Greg Ridgeway, an associate professor of criminology and statistics at the University of Pennsylvania, reviewed Cincinnati Police Department data in the early and mid-2000s, when the city paid the RAND Center for Quality Policing to do the work. His team found there was no department-wide pattern of bias against black drivers in the decision to initiate a traffic stop.

But the RAND team did find several officers who might have a problem, stopping substantially more black drivers than their peers patrolling the same times and places. It's important to do an apples-to-apples comparison, Ridgeway said, to account for the ever-changing nature of who's on the street in different areas of the city at different times of day. For example, it would do no good to compare two officers in District Two if one patrolled Hyde Park during the daytime and the other patrolled Madisonville in the evening.

Tami's office and the police department will start building out the early warning system this summer, in July or August, then test it through the rest of the year. The target date to have it fully in place is January.

The city spent about $350,000 each year for the RAND to look for a racial bias in officers' stops. Bringing the work in-house saves on those costs, Black said.

The new position in Tami's office is budgeted for about $87,000 annually.