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Monday, June 25, 2012

What's Behind the Racial Disparity in Traffic Stops? Maybe Racism, Police Actually Acknowledge

Posted by Denis C. Theriault on Mon, Jun 25, 2012 at 4:17 PM

The Portland Police Bureau last week made an eye-opening admission when presenting its most recent batch of data breaking down traffic and pedestrian stops by race and ethnicity.

The new numbers, for 2010, still show a persistent disparity between how often whites and blacks in Portland are stopped and then searched. And for the first time that anyone can remember, the bureau swallowed hard and admitted something it's often struggled to say:

Part of the problem might really be racism. Overt, institutional, and even "implicit" racism—which means someone might be a little racist without even realizing they are. The admission came during a police bureau presentation of the stats to the city's Community and Police Relations Committee, whose mission includes tackling racial tensions between cops and citizens. It was noticed immediately.


"It's great. It's amazing. It's a huge jump from where we were," says Dan Handelman of Portland Copwatch, who remembers when some cops didn't want the city's 2008 "racial profiling" committee to be named as such. "They wanted it to be called the bias-based policing committee, because they didn't think racial profiling existed."

What led to the breakthrough? Sergeant Greg Stewart, who works in the bureau's 3-year-old stat-crunching unit and devised the bureau's presentation (pdf), explains it pretty simply: Not saying so would be intellectually dishonest.

"People can be saying the same things but saying them in such a way that folks end up talking at each other or past each other," he says, adding that it was such an obvious component, historically and even right now, that he "was surprised" everyone else was so surprised he offered it.

Stewart does add a caution: Acknowledging racism in the ranks, or in policies, still won't tell the whole story about why traffic stop numbers break so starkly along racial and ethnic lines. He also mentions the usual factors raised by cops: socioeconomics, crime rates, targeted actions like gang enforcement "hotspots," etc. Those things matter as context, he says—and, based on what the bureau decides are its public safety priorities, may not even change much.

But even context only goes so far. Hence the olive branch. Next up? Figuring out how to fix thngs.

"Context is important. But owning [potential racism] is important, too," Stewart says. "We don't to make excuses, either."

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