Racial disparities in police stops demands attention
The results from a study of police stops in Ohio’s three largest cities – Cincinnati, Cleveland and Columbus – are troubling and demand closer attention from law enforcement and our elected officials. Cincinnati’s data underscores the need to make the city’s landmark Collaborative Agreement – a cornerstone of the previous decade’s police reforms – a priority by committing more funding and staff to implementing its tenets.
An examination of police stops by reporters from the nonprofit newsroom Eye on Ohio, The Cincinnati Enquirer and researchers from Stanford University’s Big Local News program confirmed what many African Americans and other people of color have argued for years: police officers stop and arrest them at significantly higher rates than whites.
In Cincinnati, blacks were stopped at a 30% higher rate than whites. Blacks made up 52% of all vehicle and pedestrian stops between 2012 and 2017, despite being 43% of the city’s population. And once stopped, police in Cincinnati arrested more than three times the number of blacks pulled over as whites, 15,127 compared to 4,315. Blacks made up 76% of all arrests, compared to 22% for whites.
Analysis of traffic stops in Columbus and Cleveland showed similar results.
It’s not fair or accurate to suggest that all of these stops were racially motivated, particularly without the proper context. But the existence of racial bias in policing cannot be dismissed outright either. At the very least, the data shows that black neighborhoods are more aggressively policed than white neighborhoods, resulting in a higher risk of being profiled and pulled over for “driving while black.” In Cincinnati, police made 79% more total stops per resident in predominantly black areas.
The Collaborative Agreement spawned from a lawsuit brought by citizens who alleged discrimination and excessive use of force by Cincinnati police officers. The deal aimed to improve police-community relations in the city amid rising tensions between police and black citizens after riots in 2001. It has been touted as a national model of collaboration among police, city agencies and the community. But the city’s fidelity to the agreement has waned in the years since its inception and agencies that arose from the pact, such as the Citizens Complaint Authority, have been underfunded and understaffed.
Mayor John Cranley’s much-ballyhooed Collaborative refresh process hasn’t delivered on its promises so far. After nearly two years, little reliable data exists to show the community the impact of arrests, traffic and pedestrian stops by officers, policies regarding body-worn cameras, police training and the status of an independent body set up to review police conduct.
The police stop data is a reminder that even with the progress brought about by the Collaborative Agreement over the past 17 years, much work remains to be done. The city should start by fortifying the Citizens Complaint Authority by hiring the minimum of five investigators required under the city’s own administrative code. Currently, there are just three. The city should also take steps to speed up the process and meet the 90-day deadline for resolving citizen complaints against officers.
There also needs to be more buy-in from the police union and leadership. The Enquirer’s research found the police department was less focused now on problem-solving projects than in the past. The city, in a report earlier this year, released data showing 56 police problem-solving projects were initiated in the first six months of 2018, and 19 were initiated in the same period of 2019. And fewer projects have been initiated under Cincinnati Police Chief Elliot Isaac than under his predecessor, Jeffrey Blackwell, according to the city data and the independent review. This reinforces the notion among the department’s critics that police don’t see a problem or need for reform.
Nothing is more corrosive to the overall health and safety of our community than mistrust and bad police-community relations. Racial profiling dehumanizes, humiliates and stokes fears in those victimized by it. That is why the Collaborative Agreement is critically important to improving awareness and training so police are prepared to make the right decisions while on patrol.