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Give Us Hard Data on DWB Stops

It's not enough to simply forbid police to arrest minorities for 'driving while black' (or brown).

May 03, 2000|CONNIE RICE | Connie Rice is a civil rights attorney in Los Angeles and co-director of the Advancement Project, a public policy organization

Here's a daring prediction: "Driving while black" traffic stops by police will continue unabated unless we have the data to show the scope of the problem. In the vernacular of a 10-year-old responding to a no-brainer: "Duh."

A bill now before the state Legislature, which has the support of Gov. Gray Davis, would outlaw DWB stops--the police practice of pulling over black and Latino drivers with little or no reasonable suspicion of wrongdoing. The bill, Senate Bill 1389, would be a start. But it glaringly fails to require data collection on all police stops.

So what? Well, for one thing, until the data show otherwise, the Los Angeles Police Department will continue to insist that DWB is a collective delusional psychosis in the black community. But the larger point is, other than the Flat Earth Society, do you know any successful enterprise that refuses to be burdened with key information? Civil rights protection especially requires good data.

I know because I am a civil rights lawyer. In the past 15 years, my colleagues and I have won $1.6 billion in damages and numerous policy changes for clients who are victims of civil rights abuses. How did we do it? With data--the basic numbers and information that flag problems, show the patterns and scope of those problems and map the impact of decisions. Does anyone imagine that we go into court with unsupported declarations of discrimination and waltz out with a check? No.

Take, for example, another issue involving the LAPD--the department's canine unit. For years, Los Angelenos in poor minority neighborhoods complained that the LAPD's dogs unnecessarily mauled and maimed them. Just as with DWB, the LAPD dismissed as absurd the hundreds of complaints about its dogs. Even after the Christopher Commission noted troubling aspects of the unit's practices, the LAPD Police Commission continued to back police claims that its use of dogs was reasonable, not excessive, force.

And by and large, so did juries. When the K-9 officer entered the courtroom with his jaunty dog, which often caught a tossed ball before taking a place at the table, the jury was understandably smitten. Faced with a choice between Rin Tin Tin and a budding "gang member" (aka, any kid from South-Central), guess who won?

That is, until we got the data. In Lawson vs. Gates, a case named for civil rights leader the Rev. James Lawson and against former Police Chief Daryl F. Gates, we pooled dog bite victims into a class and demanded years of data on bite and hospitalization rates, deployment patterns, dog training and other information that would document whether the K-9 unit was a national model, as the LAPD claimed, or a unit run amok, as we claimed.

The data settled the question. The LAPD had claimed it used the dogs in minority areas because that's where crimes for which the dogs were trained disproportionately occurred. The data showed these crimes actually occurred at higher rates in nonminority communities. The LAPD adamantly denied using excessive force in arrests made with dogs. The data showed that in one year, 80% of arrests made with dogs resulted in bites and that 47% of the bites resulted in hospitalization. Yet in arrests for the same crimes made without dogs, less than 2% resulted in force and less than 1% in hospitalization.

The LAPD claimed with great indignation that racist attitudes played no role in dog use. Transcripts of squad car conversations, however, showed that officers commonly referred to black youths as "dog biscuits" and to the unleashing of a dog as "feeding time." Because of our class-action K-9 case, the LAPD dogs have been retrained and bite rates must stay below 10% unless rationally explained.

The LAPD also can continue to deny the DWB problem, just as it denied the K-9 problem, and the Police Commission can remain in its usual state of blissful ignorance. Without the collective data to show the patterns and scope of the problem, there is little we can do about it. It is true that data alone are never conclusive, but numbers offer important initial indicators of discrimination, which can be dispelled if there are rational explanations of policy and decision-making. In the K-9 case, the data belied the LAPD's explanations. So, too, I would suspect is the case with DWB.

But to get a handle on the DWB problem, we first need to collect data, not just in minority neighborhoods, but in nonminority neighborhoods. Only then can we determine whether white drivers are routinely stopped for minor traffic infractions as frequently as black or brown drivers.

I'll take a bet on that any day. In the meantime, we must get the data to find out what is true. SB 1389 should be amended to allow that.

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