A Response to Chief Anderson’s Letter to Metro Council

 

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Chief Anderson’s belated letter to Metro City Council points out important debates in research on police officers’ racial bias but is entirely unsatisfactory as a response to Gideon’s Army’s Driving While Black report. Chief Anderson is correct that a single statistic cannot prove that “racially biased policing”—which MNPD defines as choosing to stop drivers “based solely” on their race—is causing the racial disparity in initial traffic stops. We do not make this argument in the report. We do make the argument that the observed racial disparities in stops, searches, and finding evidence during searches demonstrate a harmful discriminatory impact on black communities, likely stemming both from individual officer decisions and disparately impactful institutional policies and norms.

Chief Anderson cites several sources to show that racial profiling should be defined as an individual officer’s decision to stop a driver based solely on a group characteristic. He quotes the first sentence of the American Civil Liberties Union’s webpage on racial profiling but omits their critique of his definition a few paragraphs later. They state:

Defining racial profiling as relying “solely” on the basis of race, ethnicity, national origin or religion can be problematic. This definition found in some state racial profiling laws is unacceptable, because it fails to include when police act on the basis of race, ethnicity, national origin or religion in combination with an alleged violation of all law. Under the “solely” definition, an officer who targeted Latino drivers who were speeding would not be racial profiling because the drivers were not stopped “solely” because of their race but also because they were speeding. This would eliminate the vast majority of racial profiling now occurring (American Civil Liberties Union 2017).

Similarly, the Department of Justice does not establish that individual officers acted solely based on race when concluding that discriminatory racial impact and constitutional violations occurred in Baltimore and Ferguson. Using Census data, they argue that,

While there are limitations on using population data to benchmark vehicle stops because the proportion of drivers on roadways does not necessarily match the population living in a particular area, there are strong indications that BPD’s high rate of stopping African-American drivers is discriminatory (U.S. Department of Justice 2016:52).

Drawing methodologically from the DOJ’s Ferguson and Baltimore reports, we argue that the data show a consistent racially disparate impact across the county on multiple indicators. Chief Anderson’s letter to Metro Council overlooks discriminatory impact from probable cause and consent searches as well as the fact that officers are less likely to find evidence of a crime on black drivers. Our 22 interviews with black Nashville residents make clear that it is these discriminatory practices that are undermining police-community relations, not our report aimed at transforming policing and strengthening communities. The voices of community members were not mentioned in his letter.

In terms of methodology, Chief Anderson makes an important point: unadjusted Census benchmarks do not tell the full story of officers’ decision-making, but they can be strengthened through several adjustments, which we address in our report. First, to clarify several inaccuracies in Chief Anderson’s statement, prisoners are not included in the American Community Survey (ACS) since it only measures the non-institutionalized population and college students living in dorms are included in the ACS (U.S. Census Bureau 2016). The American Community Survey is continuously collected and estimates the population of metropolitan areas with more than 65,000 people annually. As recommended by Lorie Fridell (2004), one of the experts cited by Chief Anderson, ACS data can be adjusted by using the driving age population in combination with the proportion of households with access to vehicles.

The Driving While Black report assessed stops of residents separately from non-residents—as recommended by Fridell—since it matches the traffic stops to the benchmark being used (See Finding 2). Chief Anderson states that black drivers are 10% overrepresented; however, when excluding non-residents—as recommended by scholars—the disparity increases to 15%. If we adjust the Census benchmark for likely drivers through household car ownership, the black-white disparity would be even greater with black residents being 17.5% overrepresented in traffic stops. In 2014, 13.9% of black Nashville residents did not have access to a vehicle. White and Hispanic residents had greater access to vehicles with only 3.4% of white residents and 4.6% of Hispanic residents not having a vehicle (See Footnote 2 on page 37 of the report).

Chief Anderson can make insinuations about our ethics and research expertise, saying that we are “morally disingenuous” for promoting “a false narrative of racial profiling.” He can “categorically deny” that MNPD engages in racial profiling, and that community members asking for change are just biased against police. But the fact that MNPD’s policing strategy has a discriminatory impact on black communities, as black community members have been saying for years, will not change through denial, or through insufficient attempts at legitimizing these disparities, as we have previously shown. As community organizer D.J. Hudson stated at a recent press conference regarding Chief Anderson’s letter,

Not only to not hear the core assertion, which is that there is a problem here in Nashville, but to then assert that there is no problem and that the people who are identifying a problem are lying, shows a severe breach in this narrative that he is trying to paint, that things are cozy and all is well in Nashville.

The first step in fixing a problem is acknowledging that it exists. Epp, Maynard-Moody, and Haider-Markel (2014), scholars at the University of Kansas, argue that the practice of pulling over many people in order to catch a few people who have committed crimes—or “looking past the stop” in MNPD parlance—deeply undermines community trust in police and limits communities’ ability to act collectively to reduce crime. They argue that, “the immediate task is to change institutionalized practices that have become the taken-for-granted definitions of professionalism, of what it means to do good police work” (Epp et al. 2014:160). Further, they state:

Changing norms and practice will also require the leadership of professional policing to frankly acknowledge and actively promote the message that investigatory stops cause harm. They cause harm even when the officer’s street-wise hunch draws attention to a driver or pedestrian and when the officer remains courteous and professional throughout the encounter. The current message from leaders that these stops ‘work’ is at best grossly imbalanced, at worst simply false. Every stop of an innocent person causes direct, palpable harm (Epp et al. 2014:161).

Gideon’s Army works to dismantle institutional injustices that are deeply ingrained in the criminal justice system. Chief Anderson just told us that he does not see discrimination as an institutional problem but a problem of single individuals acting on bias. This outdated and inaccurate understanding of racial discrimination undermines his credibility on issues of race and policing. Nashville deserves more.

Works Cited

American Civil Liberties Union. 2017. “Racial Profiling: Definition.” Retrieved July 3, 2017 (https://www.aclu.org/other/racial-profiling-definition).

Epp, Charles R., Steven Maynard-Moody, and Donald P. Haider-Markel. 2014. Pulled Over: How Police Stops Define Race and Citizenship. University of Chicago Press.

Fridell, Lorie A. 2004. “By the Numbers: A Guide for Analyzing Race Data from Vehicle Stops.” Police Executive Research Forum Washington, DC.

U.S. Census Bureau. 2016. “Group Quarters/Residence Rules.” Retrieved July 3, 2017 (https://www.census.gov/topics/income-poverty/guidance/group-quarters.html).

U.S. Department of Justice. 2016. Investigation of the Baltimore City Police Department.

 

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