I-Team: Early warning system to spot racial profiling quietly slips by wayside

Chief, city manager agree it needs to come back
Posted at 6:00 AM, Nov 17, 2016
and last updated 2017-02-04 22:36:47-05

CINCINNATI -- An early warning system to detect the possibility of racial profiling within the Cincinnati Police Department has fallen by the wayside.

Since that early warning system ended in 2012 -- abandoned under then-chief James Craig -- a WCPO I-Team analysis found there's a growing racial disparity in the drivers Cincinnati police have stopped.

City Manager Harry Black and Police Chief Eliot Isaac say they're making several changes -- including forming a new unit within the police department -- to get to the bottom of it.

"Something is occurring," Black said. "We need to ascertain what it is."

Criminal statistics experts say the disparity isn't, by itself, evidence of racial profiling within the police department. Traffic stops are down significantly over the past seven years, cut by more than half. And there have been very few formal complaints of racial profiling during that time.

But 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.

"It's troubling to me," retired police officer and current City Councilman Wendell Young said. "And I wouldn't be as troubled if the department could've immediately said to you, 'Oh yeah, here's what's going on,' but they couldn't -- that's what's troubling to me."

The trend raises a "serious red flag" for State Sen. Cecil Thomas, who, like Young, is a retired Cincinnati police officer and served on City Council. And, like Young, he was once president of the Sentinel Police Association, which advocates for the interests of African-American officers.

"It's a warning shot at this point," Thomas said. "I think we have an opportunity here based on you all's research to correct a problem waiting to become much more serious."

Fewer traffic stops, but larger share are black drivers

Cincinnati police officials said they're less focused on traffic enforcement than they used to be. Isaac and Black said that's a result of a more sophisticated, data-driven approach to policing over the past decade.

"You see a very significant focus on violent crimes," Isaac said. "I think if you go back to 2008, 2009, you began to see the beginning of our CIRV (Cincinnati Initiative to Reduce Violence) efforts...where you see a more concentrated focus on violent offenders rather than just the traditional approach of just traffic enforcement being such a large part of enforcement efforts."

Data show officers stopped 43,031 drivers from January to September 2009; about 56 percent of them were black, and 42 percent were white. The year before, in 2008, about 53 percent of stops involved black drivers.

By September this year, Cincinnati police officers had stopped 17,782 drivers -- a decline of nearly 60 percent over the past seven years, and a trend police officials say they're proud of.

But a larger share of drivers stopped this year have been black: about 63 percent, compared with 35 percent who were white.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, roughly 50 percent of Cincinnati residents are white, while about 44 percent are black.

The lowest racial disparity in the past eight years came in 2012, when officers stopped 27,051 drivers -- 52 percent of them were black, and 45 percent were white.

Year to date, the I-Team found Cincinnati police have stopped almost 66 percent fewer white drivers than 2009. For black drivers, the decrease was about 53 percent.

"This is good information for us to know, and what we will do is dive into it to try to make heads or tails out of what the insights might be," Black said, after looking at the data presented by the I-Team.

Greg Ridgeway, an associate professor of criminology and statistics at the University of Pennsylvania, points out that a racial disparity isn't the same as evidence of racial profiling. If police stopped more men than women, for example, you couldn't necessarily conclude police are biased against men. There are other variables at play.

During the mid- and late 2000s, Ridgeway analyzed data from the Cincinnati Police Department to see if it was making progress on reform efforts outlined in the historic Collaborative Agreement. The Collaborative, signed in 2002, created a framework for the city, its police department, the police union and community leaders to work as partners in dealing with crime and other neighborhood problems.

His team's analysis, conducted through the RAND Center on Quality Policing, found there was no department-wide pattern of bias against black drivers in the decision to initiate a traffic stop.

Spotting the 'outliers'

For each year of data Ridgeway's team at RAND analyzed, there were several officers who stopped substantially more black drivers than their peers patrolling the same times and places. It's important to do an apples-to-apples comparison, he 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.

Ridgeway gave the police department a tool in 2007 so its staff analysts could run that same, custom report and spot officers who may be "outliers" -- those stopping a disproportionate number of white or black drivers. The department could flag those officers and evaluate their work, in combination with other factors, to determine if there might be racial profiling at play.

Isaac said RAND continued to run the analysis for CPD through 2011, at which point the department started doing the work in house -- for a year, anyway.

"What is the reason for an officer to be an outlier?" Isaac said. "Is it truly a bias, or is there some other factor that may cause that? And I think that it's critical that we examine that collectively and holistically to make sure that we can identify if there is a problem."

Since 2013, there have been 23 formal allegations of racial profiling leveled against the police force, Lt. Col. Paul Neudigate said. Only one of those complaints was sustained.

Still, keeping tabs on traffic stops goes to the heart of the Collaborative Agreement, Thomas said: It's an open, transparent way to look at what police officers are doing.

"The most citizen contact is a traffic stop -- just a street stop or a traffic stop," he said. "Those are the opportunities to promote good police-community relations, being courteous, explaining to the citizen the policy and just having that discussion with the citizen in a very transparent, open and courteous way. Doing that allows the citizen to say 'Even though I got a ticket, I was treated very fairly in getting that citation.' That's the way we build good police-community relations because the word of mouth spreads based on that."

Different scenarios, but similar questions

Thomas talked with WCPO last Friday evening at Coffee Emporium on Central Parkway. A block away, demonstrators rallied outside the Hamilton County Courthouse. Inside, jurors argued the fate of Ray Tensing, a former University of Cincinnati police officer who shot and killed black motorist Samuel DuBose during what Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters called a "chicken crap" traffic stop in the city's Mount Auburn neighborhood.

The University of Cincinnati Police Department and the city's police force are very different organizations with very different scenarios: UCPD aggressively ramped up its traffic enforcement under its former chief, Jason Goodrich, part of a strategy to address crime in the neighborhoods surrounding the school's Uptown campus. Before Goodrich's arrival in November 2014, UCPD was averaging 86.5 stops per month. After he became chief, that more-than-tripled to an average of 271.5 per month, an independent investigation found. Also, the average number of citations given by UCPD nearly quadrupled from an average of 64.5 per month before Goodrich to an average of 256.

In the two months prior to the shooting, stops and citations had hit an all-time high, averaging 412 stops and 392.5 citations, according to a report from independent investigation firm Exiger.

Tensing's record showed he stopped black motorists nearly four times as often as whites.

At UCPD, Exiger found Goodrich failed to take "basic steps to gather available data and formulate management information by which UCPD could have assessed risk and better understood the conduct of its officers in the field, both individually and collectively."

The Cincinnati Police Department, meanwhile, has ratcheted down its traffic stops. In 2015 and 2016, they said, white and black drivers were equally as likely to be ticketed after they were stopped.

But the city's data does show a gap in who's getting stopped in the first place. And it's not clear, for now, if there's a problem with those figures, because CPD stopped analyzing officers' stop patterns as part of a quarterly review in 2012 -- something Thomas said "should never have occurred."

"There's no excuse to have some of the disparities we see in these numbers," he said. "No excuse."

"Let's just be honest: We've had some leadership changes in the last five years, and some things have fallen by the wayside," Isaac said. Since longtime chief Tom Streicher retired in 2011, the police department has seen two permanent chiefs and one interim chief come and go, along with changes among the department's command staff.

The Great Recession may be partly to blame, too, Black said: "It stopped a lot of things, it slowed a lot of things down. So where we are now is we're making a mad dash to catch back up, not only in this area but in other areas, and we're making a lot of progress in that regard."

'Refreshing' the Collaborative Agreement

The shooting death of DuBose in July 2015, along with other fatal police shootings involving black men around the country, has led for calls to "refresh" the Collaborative Agreement. For that to be successful, Black and Isaac agree the city needs to do a better job of keeping tabs on officers' stop patterns.

Over the past three years, the city has added more than 148 officers.

"I think it's important that if we do have any officers that fall in that outlier category, that we can see if we have an issue -- if there's something that we need to do to address this disparity," Isaac said. "I think it also allows us to hold true to our commitment to the community that we would do this. And I think that just standing on the tenets of the Collaborative Agreement that we will continue to do this moving forward."

The system wasn't -- and shouldn't be seen as -- a "gotcha" for officers who might show racial disparity in their stops, Young said. It's a way of supporting officers, he said, by keeping them closer to the training they learn in the police academy so they don't slip into bad habits other officers might pass down.

"When you're monitoring people, you want to be certain that everyone understanding what you're doing is done to improve the department, to keep it the kind of department everybody deserves to have, which is the best possible, and that you're a valued part of that, and that what we're doing is meant to support you," he said.

Black's Office of Performance and Data Analytics is looking at whether it can tackle the traffic stop analysis in-house, he said. That comes with a cost, and Black said he expects Mayor John Cranley and City Council would support it.

"This is very involved work, which is why, probably, previous administrations and leadership sort of let it wane a little bit," he said. "But it's something that I believe we must do, but we're going to need to be prepared to pay for it, as well."

The chief also said he's creating a new unit within the Cincinnati Police Department, under Lt. Deborah Bauer, to monitor the city's commitment to the Collaborative Agreement.

"You brought one thing to us very tangible here," Isaac said. "And one of the things we recognize is that this is something -- incorporating traffic stops into our quarterly review -- that's something that we found that ceased in 2012, and in my first year as chief, something that I want to make sure we're continuing to do."