Sunday, January 20, 2008

Traffic ticket databases reveal disturbing racial trend

From microwave ovens to iPods, technology is a wonderful thing for quality of life. It’s also been great for holding taxpayer-funded agencies accountable. Armed with a PC and some basic software, government records, previously too painstaking to collect let alone analyze, are now within the grasp of average citizens and, especially their media watchdogs.
In the spirit of greater government accountability, The Times spent the fall collecting databases of Shreveport-Bossier City traffic citations.
The issues we uncovered are troubling.
The databases show a disparity in the way citations were handed out to motorists. Black drivers were cited twice as often as white drivers. The common term for that is racial profiling.
Can the numbers be explained away by simple demographics, you reasonably might ask. But it isn’t the population but the number of licensed drivers that counts.
Bossier City Police Chief Mike Halphen contends being a tourist destination skews analyses. Evidently, he thinks more than twice the number of tourists are black, or at least the ones he sees breaking the law.
At worst, the database shows a disparity that demands more sophisticated departmental analyses and bears watching officer conduct, re-examining their training and policies.
Shreveport Police seem to have the tools it needs to ferret out departmental issues using statistics. Bossier City’s data system is more antiquated.
When we began seeking this information, Shreveport was able to produce it in a timely manner for a minimal fee. They get a "B" in timeliness and readiness to fill our public records request. They omitted race in the first query for the stats.
Bossier City police receive a "D," taking four months and a huge bill for extracting the information from their mainframe database, although the final bill was less than the six-figure number they first cited.
Access to documents related to crime fighting and prevention is growing throughout the nation. These tools (see Portland's crime map with crime selector at the bottom) help police manage trends and police themselves. And they help citizens get information about these trends in real time, potentially helping police.
Without transparency in publicly funded agencies, all levels of government can wield power and make decisions unchecked. Officers hold a great deal of power as they enforce the law on the streets.
This can be intimidating if you don’t feel you can trust them. Transparency helps foster trust.
Think about crime-fighting issues. Police are sometimes dumbfounded when citizens won’t come forward with information when neighbors are victimized.
Well, if you believe you are being targeted unfairly by the police for any reason, are you going to trust them enough to tell them anything?
As former President Ronald Reagan said, "Trust, but verify."
In this age of openness and transparency declared by our new governor, reluctance to either produce data or discuss findings is unsettling. Both police chiefs would not be interviewed without having questions in advance. See the interviews online to give them your own grade in this area.
Once we had the information, we knew it needed to be accessible to citizens. The numbers are what they are, and the facts are better than any anecdotes.
There will be a few citizens ruffled by their names being in the database. Maybe they didn’t tell their spouse or parent about the ticket. Those issues are not issues for The Times.
In the face of statistics raising the kinds of issues we found, everyone can learn a lesson here.
Judge the statistics for yourself and through your own analysis. And when you find the same disparities we highlighted, be concerned and vocal about solutions you see. Share them with us, allowing us to amplify your voice.
Our mission is to free information from the hands of those who withhold what is rightfully yours, providing a tool for citizens to redress government and to live free, unencumbered by racial bias.

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