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Some police departments make strides against racial profiling
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In St. Paul, complaints against police officers are down since the creation of an anti-racial profiling agreement two years ago. The agreement calls for additional training, and it requires police officers to hand out business cards and tell people when they aren't required to submit to a search. (MPR Photo/Brandt Williams)
In the last five years, a growing number of law enforcement agencies across the country have begun investigating claims of racial profiling. They've begun by collecting data on police stops. In many cities, the collection has led to open discussions about race and the role race plays in police work. State public safety officials say they hope the racial disparities outlined in Minnesota's traffic stop data can be used to open discussions here. However, some say data collection is just the first step in a long process of building trust between police and communities of color.

St. Paul, Minn. — In St. Paul, complaints against police officers are down since the creation of an anti-racial profiling agreement two years ago. The agreement calls for additional police training, and it requires police officers to hand out business cards and tell people when they aren't required to submit to a search. The agreement also established alternative ways for citizens to lodge complaints. People can now bring their complaints to organizations like the NAACP.

Diane Binns is a member of the NAACP, and was a part of the team that negotiated the agreement with police. She says, for the most part, the nature of complaints have changed as well.

"They're not as severe as they used to be," says Binns. "It's sad to say there has to be a degree of complaints, but now you may have some verbal abuse, where there may have been some physical stuff going on before."

The agreement grew out of federal mediation. The mediation was sparked by the release of police traffic stop data which revealed that drivers of color in St. Paul were more likely to be pulled over and searched than white drivers. Recently, a state study determined that was also the case for African-American, Native American and Latino drivers in 65 Minnesota jurisdictions.

I am a firm believer that there is more to gain from the studies than to lose.
- Deputy Chief Rob Davis, San Jose, California Police Department

The disparity was especially acute in suburban areas. The jurisdictions that volunteered for the study represent a little more than 10 percent of the 500-plus law enforcement agencies in Minnesota.

Law professor David Harris of the University of Toledo says if a police department is serious about addressing racial profiling, it first has to start compiling the numbers.

"Because it gets the conversation away from the realm of anecdote, and it moves us towards facts," says Harris. "The facts are not always clear, of course, they need to be interpreted. But at least you can stop talking about, 'Yes we do, no you don't, here's a story, there's a story.'"

Harris is the author of the book Profiles in Injustice: Why Racial Profiling Doesn't Work. His research became the basis for the Federal Traffic Stops Statistics Act, the first national proposal to attempt to confront racial profiling. He says since 1998, a growing number of law enforcement agencies have studied racial profiling.

Harris says 15 states currently require some sort of data collection. Some jurisdictions have been forced to gather racial data due to discrimination lawsuits. Others, like the San Jose, California police department, began to voluntarily collect numbers.

"I am a firm believer that there is more to gain from the studies than to lose," says Rob Davis, deputy chief of the San Jose police department.

San Jose was one of the first police departments to voluntarily begin tracking racial traffic stop data four years ago. Davis wrote his master's degree thesis on his department's traffic stop data. He says the process is a way to initiate trust between police and community.

"The police department sends a signal to their community that they're on top of the situation, they're willing to listen to the community, they're willing to look at it. They're willing to be open minded about it," says Davis. "And also that they're telling the community we recognize that if we don't at least measure it, how can we claim to be managing it."

But law professor David Harris says police departments need to do more than just collect data. He says both the police and community must come together to work on improving relations. Harris says in Detroit, law enforcement and civilian groups have established lines of communication.

"If there is an incident in the community, you've got instant phone contact between the leaders of community groups and advocacy groups and law enforcement," says Harris. "And they're right on top of it. They do the things that need to be done, and say the things that need to be said in the media to keep the situation moving along and under control -- even when there are heated arguments and bruised feelings."

In St. Paul, when conflict arises between the police and members of the African-American community, police leadership can call on a group of black ministers.

"One of the things that we've done that's been successful is the creation or the formal naming of the God Squad," says 'God Squad' member Rev. Devin Miller.

He says even though St. Paul has an anti-racial profiling agreement, combating discrimination and the perception of discrmination is an ongoing task.

Miller says generally, both police and community members trust clergymen. And he says that allows the God Squad to talk to members of the community who don't want to talk to police.

"We would gather information so that when something came out, we had it from the ground," says Miller. "Now it's to a point that when something happens, the police call us because we'll get more information then they will."

But Rev. Miller says building trust between groups that have historically clashed with each other takes time. Miller says he was present for some of the more heated negotiations for the St. Paul agreement. He came away with this advice for other community groups seeking to build the same kind of pact with law enforcement.

"You can't browbeat the police," says Miller. "You can talk about them, but you can't browbeat them. Until you sit down with them -- again, it's communication, goals and objectives in common, understanding and a tolerance of that understanding. And then it's patience."

Law professor David Harris says understanding and trust are the glue that holds the legal system together. But he says there's one more crucial reason why police departments should not tolerate racial profiling. Harris says, as a law enforcement tool, it simply doesn't help cops catch the bad guys.

"They get less successful when they use race or ethnic appearance as one factor -- not the only factor, but one factor among many -- than when they don't. They just do a poorer job of getting dope off the street, of getting guns off the street."

The Minnesota study supports Harris' theory. The study found that while drivers of color were more likely to be searched by police officers, white drivers were more likely to be carrying contraband.

As a followup to the study, the Minnesota Department of Public Safety will sponsor police and community meetings in 10 jurisdictions across the state.

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