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Local Government Auditing Quarterly
GET Accountable: Portland's Gang Enforcement Team
By Elizabeth Pape
Police departments are awash in data. There has never been more data available about police activity, which has been a positive development for police accountability and meeting community expectations. But despite all this data, some specialty police units still operate with little accountability.
Patrol officers, who respond to reported crimes, are held accountable because they are assigned to a geographic area and are required to answer dispatcher calls for service. Specialty police units, who are more self-directed and free to investigate more complex crimes, may generate little data about their whereabouts or activities. Without data, it can be difficult to hold specialty units accountable.
We used data about traffic stops to try to get a better understanding of a specialty unit in the Portland Police Bureau, the Gang Enforcement Team. We found that though the data offered some insights, officers needed to provide more information to ensure that their work was effective and not racially biased.
Our premise was that without police bias, the racial distribution of drivers stopped for traffic violations should mirror the population as a whole. For traffic officer stops, where the goal is to promote safe driving, there is no reason that there should be a difference between the racial distribution of people stopped and the population.
But when traffic stops are also used by specialty units, discrepancies in demographics can become more pronounced and more controversial. Police use what they call "pretext stops" to stop drivers for reasons other than enforcing traffic laws. The traffic violation is a pretext for what police are really interested in. When the Gang Enforcement Team stops a vehicle, the real purpose is related to investigating or preventing gang crimes. Police told us that if they follow someone (anyone) long enough, they will almost certainly commit a traffic violation that provides probable cause to stop a vehicle. After a vehicle is stopped, police have opportunities to interact with the driver for reasons other than the initial stop.
The Portland Gang Enforcement Team uses pretext traffic stops for two purposes: to gather intelligence from gang members and associates, and to seize illegal weapons. We identified two risks associated with these traffic stops: (1) that officers used racial profiling when making stops, which would hurt community relationships, or (2) that stops were not effective and a waste of time. Only if stops were not biased and effective would they meet community expectations.
TRAFFIC STOP DATA TO REVEAL BIAS
To determine if there was potential that police were using racial profiling, we compared racial demographics of those stopped to demographics in Portland. We found that African American people were overrepresented in traffic stops: 59 percent of the people the Gang Enforcement Team stopped were African American compared to 6 percent of the population.
The data show that officers were not randomly stopping drivers on the street, but we don’t know why officers were stopping more African American people because officers did not include their investigative reason for the stop. Officers may have been racially profiling African American people, or they may have been using some other indicator that caused them to suspect that people were potentially involved in gang activities.
When we presented the disparity to police officers they were not surprised. Officers told us that they believed that most gang violence victims were African American people, so it made sense that they were stopping people in communities with more African Americans than Portland as a whole. They justified the disparity by saying that they were protecting African American communities. However, we found that the disparities existed even at the census tract level and that this explanation was not sufficient.
A second problem with the officers’ explanation for why they disproportionally stopped African American people is that these types of analyses can be used to show where a potential bias exists, but they cannot be used the other way around to justify a disparity. In other words, it would be inappropriate to aim for stopping a certain percentage of African American drivers just because a large percentage of Portland’s shooting victims were African American. That would still mean officers were making the decision to stop people primarily because on their race and not because they suspected gang activity. Traffic stop data can show that there were no biases in place, but when disparities are present, it is up to officers to explain why they stop certain drivers.
TRAFFIC STOP DATA TO DEMONSTRATE EFFECTIVENESS
We also used traffic stop data to show whether stops were effective in meeting Gang Enforcement Team goals. The stops data includes information about stop outcomes like whether officers issued a citation, seized any illegal weapons, or made an arrest. Stops data could tell us about one of the goals, whether officers seized weapons, but not whether they met the other goal, which was to gather intelligence. According to stops data, officers seized illegal weapons in 2 percent of traffic stops. They made arrests in 9 percent of stops and issued citations in 1 percent. A full 90 percent of recorded stops resulted in no enforcement action with no other information about the outcome. In its plan to address racial profiling, the Portland Police Bureau acknowledged that these kinds of non-enforcement stops can feel like harassment. The Bureau recommended limiting these stops, but the Gang Enforcement Team still conducted stops of this nature in 90 percent of the cases we reviewed.
DATA SHOWS POTENTIAL, BUT NOT CONCLUSIVE EVIDENCE
Ultimately, the stops data as collected at the time of the audit were not sufficient for providing evidence to the community that the Gang Enforcement Team avoided the risks of racial bias and ineffectiveness. The data showed a potential for racial profiling and potentially ineffective practices, but no conclusive results. We recommended that the Gang Enforcement Team document the investigative purpose for stops in addition to the traffic violation that was used as pretext. If police could articulate why they suspected the people they stopped were affiliated with gang activity, it would demonstrate that race was not the reason for the stop and that they were not using racial profiling. We also recommended that if the unit continued to use pretext stops to gather gang intelligence, it should record whether the people it stopped were gang affiliates.
Traffic stop data alone was not enough to hold the Gang Enforcement Team accountable. But by trying to use the data, we were able to demonstrate areas where unit could improve accountability by collecting a few more data points. The Portland Police Bureau accepted our recommendations, and in the future, there should be more data about the activities of the Gang Enforcement Team to ensure that they are effective and not biased.
For a copy of the full report visit:
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
is a Senior Management Auditor at the City of Portland. She has a master's degree in Urban and Regional Planning and is a Certified Internal Auditor.
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