Since the early 2000s, numerous studies have shown that Washington State Patrol troopers search non-white drivers at disproportionately higher rates than white drivers. Despite that knowledge, new reporting confirms that little to nothing has changed, prompting calls for reform from around the state, including in Spokane.
The nonprofit watchdog journalism outfit InvestigateWest reports that, between 2009 and 2015, troopers searched Native American and other non-white drivers more often than white drivers, even when they didn't have to. Native American drivers, for instance, were searched at five times the rate as white drivers who were stopped, during "high-discretion" searches — instances where troopers decided to search a car or motorist even if they weren't legally or procedurally required to do so. By analyzing data from millions of traffic stops and roughly 22,000 high-discretion searches, the report found that Native American, black, Latino and Pacific Islander drivers were all more likely to be searched. The disparate search rates occurred despite the fact that white drivers who were searched were the most likely to be carrying drugs.
In response to InvestigateWest's reporting, the State Patrol has embraced the findings, promising proper scrutiny of the issue and reforms, such as expanding implicit bias training for troopers and contracting with Washington State University researchers to provide more analysis through an additional study.
"If there's a single person that has had an interaction with Washington State Patrol that differed from any other person because of their race, then we have a problem," says Chris Loftis, a Washington State Patrol spokesman. "We don't want to be dismissive of the findings.
"The needle really hasn't moved much," he adds, referring to the numerous studies showing racial disparities in trooper searchers. "So it's obvious that we have to look at it again, look at it differently, and come up with even more aggressive strategies for this issue."
To some, the findings are a symptom of deeper problems of implicit bias within the ranks of the Washington State Patrol.
"It's alarming but it's not really surprising," says Kurtis Robinson, chair of the Spokane NAACP. "This is what we've been saying."
"Let's start calling it what it is. It is structural racism. That is the manifestation of it," he adds. "We need to be very real about talking about race."
Carol Evans, chairwoman of the Spokane Tribal Business Council says that racial profiling of Native American drivers "does occur."
"Maybe our State Patrol has some type of view of Native Americans," she adds. "The main thing is education, cultural sensitivity training, coming together and meeting and talking about Native people. And the State Patrol obtaining an understanding of Native people and knowing about who they are, their history, and where they come from."
The report found that many of the high-discretion searches of Native American motorists by troopers happened near the borders of reservations, including the Colville Reservation northwest of Spokane. An estimated one-third of those high-discretion searches occurred where U.S. Route 97 enters the Colville and Yakama reservations.
Evans, of the Spokane Tribal Council, says that she recalls instances of State Patrol troopers camping out near the border or reservations and stopping tribal citizens passing through.
"Historically we have had cases where there may have been some State Patrol [troopers] in the area that sit at the borders and stop tribal citizens," she says. "They would actually know when events were going on, that maybe we were traveling to the city, and so they would sit on our borders and stop our people on purpose, just find little reasons to stop them."
Loftis disputes the notion that troopers are targeting tribal citizens at the borders of reservations. He says that troopers are deployed on highly trafficked roads, not areas frequented by non-white drivers.
"To suggest that we are camping out on the edges of reservation land or tribal land or waiting, that's a predatory act that we don't do," he says. "That would be beneath us."
Spokane-area state lawmakers contacted by the Inlander voiced a variety of reactions to the data, ranging from concern to dismissal of the findings.
"The findings are concerning and show how far we have to go as a state to reduce implicit bias," says Rep. Marcus Riccelli (D-Spokane). "I'm heartened to hear that [the] State Patrol is resuming its study of the issue with Washington State University. It's important that they expand anti-bias training and recruitment from diverse communities."
In contrast, Sen. Mike Padden (R-Spokane Valley) is skeptical of the notion that there is a widespread issue of bias in the law enforcement agency.
"It would be surprising to me that there was really bias, based just on the numbers," he says. "I'm quite certain that there is no purposeful discrimination."
"The more bias I've seen is with law enforcement, on cars that are speeding, is the color of the car," Padden adds. "Red cars seemed to get stopped a lot more. Or sports cars."
Meanwhile, Rep. Timm Ormsby (D-Spokane) says he thinks there is implicit bias in the ranks.
"I think the first thing is acknowledging it," Ormsby says. "I was glad [the State Patrol] weren't like, 'No, it's not really true.'"
Ormsby and other lawmakers have stated that they would support allocating funding for additional studies of the issue by Washington State University researchers — if requested by Washington State Patrol.
"If more resources need to be dedicated to Washington State Patrol for this to happen, I believe the Legislature would be happy to do it," he says.
Loftis, the State Patrol spokesman, adds in an email that agency staff are currently in talks with state lawmakers about funding sources for the new study — which would examine potential policy changes to help address racial disparities in searches — and additional potential reforms, such as improved implicit bias training and recruitment efforts in non-white communities. (Washington State Patrol troopers are overwhelmingly white and male.) He argues that the existing State Patrol budget doesn't have the resources to pay for it.
"Our agency relies heavily on preset funding packages from the Legislature to meet our public safety mission, so adjustments would be necessary in other arenas," he writes. "This effort is larger than the costs of a single study and includes long-term strategic planning in training, recruitment, and community relations over a period of some time, developing tactical planning for corrective measures, and then developing long-term methods to monitor progress and adjust accordingly." ♦