In a new program to track police interactions and deter racial profiling, Spokane Police officers will start packing statistic forms while out patrolling their beats next year. Every time an officer questions a citizen or makes a traffic stop, the officer will have to fill out a short data form, noting the person's race, location and other details.
With just a handful of questions, each individual form offers minimal insight, but combined with thousands of other data records on contacts across the city, the Spokane Police Department hopes to compile an unprecedented look into how its officers interact with citizens on a daily basis.
Cmdr. Brad Arleth, who has overseen the development of the program, says many metro-sized law enforcement agencies have logged similar race data for years. Amid ongoing national debate over the role of race in "stop and frisk," gang enforcement and other targeted policing strategies, tracking who Spokane officers engage on the street can provide telling clues about how race may factor into local policing decisions.
"A lot of other agencies have done it," Arleth says, adding, "Essentially, it's an audit function. ... It goes to transparency."
As the department prepares to launch the new data tracking program at the beginning of next year, police accountability advocates hope the new information can advance the local conversation on racial profiling. Community groups say existing jail and use-of-force records already show signs of significant racial disparities in how Spokane agencies arrest and incarcerate people of color.
Liz Moore, director of the Peace and Justice Action League of Spokane, says collecting the data serves as a critical first step in addressing those institutional inequalities, a step long overdue.
"People don't get to the jail by themselves," she says. "It starts with an interaction with the police. ... What we need is a really comprehensive understanding of what happens."
Law enforcement agencies first started tracking race data on police contacts in the late '90s in response to nationwide concerns over racial profiling. In the early 2000s, several Washington departments, including Seattle, Tacoma and Vancouver, started recording contact data. The state Legislature also passed a law encouraging departments to collect and analyze race data on all traffic stops to prevent racial profiling, but Spokane never implemented such a program.
During public testimony before the city's Use of Force Commission last year, accountability advocates called for the police department to address racial disparities in the local justice system. Ed Byrnes, a statistician and associate professor at Eastern Washington University, volunteered to help the department develop the new tracking system to assess how officers approach citizens of different races.
"We can have some hope of impacting how officers make decisions based on their perceptions," Byrnes says. "That's a lot of what's driving this. ... We have to start somewhere and we're going to start now."
Byrnes, who also works with the Spokane Police Accountability and Reform Coalition, says he has based the new data program on the "best practices" from the Racial Profiling Data Collection Resource Center at Northeastern University. The center promotes data tracking as a tool for improving transparency, increasing officer accountability and identifying potential misconduct.
Spokane officers will carry data forms in their ticket books and complete a brief checklist after each citizen encounter. Those forms will be scanned into a computer after each shift and loaded into a database that can break down interactions by officer, neighborhood or other variables.
When recording a person's race, officers will report what they believe the person's race to be. Byrnes says if the data is supposed to track how officers treat people of different races, the information should be based on how the officers view the other person's race.
"It comes down to an officer's perception of race. That's really the key variable," he says. "It's how the officer is perceiving me that's going to drive their decision to stop me."
While Moore acknowledges this as a "good goal," she warns allowing officers to make their own determinations on race could lead to miscounts or manipulation of the data.
Arleth says the department continues to work out details on the data forms, scanning procedures and training schedules for the program, but officials expect to be able to start recording data on Jan. 1. Bynes will then meet with police administrators regularly to review the data.
While the Legislature urges agencies to log traffic stops, Arleth says the local department will exceed that mandate by also tracking pedestrian and other contacts. Officials have worked with Byrnes to try to make the data forms thorough without drowning officers in excess paperwork.
"Even people who they don't issue infractions to, they'll have to complete a form for," Arleth says. "So it is going to be an extra workload, but so are a lot of other things. ... Doing better police business takes extra work."
Moore and other justice advocates hope the new police interaction data can provide important insight into what they see as troubling trends in the Spokane criminal justice system. While records from 2011 show black citizens account for just 1.5 percent of the county population, black inmates appear to make up 12 percent of the county jail population.
SPD use-of-force records also indicate a "consistent, high" number of Taser deployments against black and Native American subjects, Moore says. Of the 106 people Tasered by the Spokane Police between 2009 and 2012, advocates say 16 percent were black and 9.4 percent were Native American, well above population levels. So far this year, that rate has shown a decrease.
James Wilburn Jr., president of the Spokane NAACP, says the proposed data program represents a long-awaited and much-needed effort to recognize and address the many signs of profiling and disparity in the local system.
"It's going to be very valuable," he says.
In addition to serving as an important check against profiling, police officials say the new data will also help establish a baseline portrait of common citizen interactions, outlining what people and neighborhoods officers engage with most. That information should only help officers better serve those communities.
"Certainly we need to be doing it," Arleth says. "Most communities across the United States expect their department to be cognizant of those issues. ... We're on a mad dash to get this in place and moving."
After years of hearing stories about Spokane citizens being pulled over for "driving while black" or other seemingly race-motivated stops, Moore hopes the new data will clear up the bigger picture and help people understand how law enforcement operates throughout the city.
"We need to know what is a pattern," she says. "Collecting data is just a really basic step in correcting that." ♦