The reports by the five “police reform” subcommittees are now making the rounds through City Commissions in advance of being presented to Council in March.
Not among them, however, is the one report the Merry-Go-Round would have liked to have seen but didn’t: a summary of what, if anything, about the Alameda Police Department the subcommittees determined was broken and needed fixing.
Specifically, we would have like to have known whether, based on evidence they had gathered and examined, the subcommittees concluded that APD officers were enforcing the law in a discriminatory manner against Blacks and other people of color or that our local cops were using unjustified force when arresting BIPOC citizens.
This is not just a matter of idle (or prurient) curiosity. It seems, at least to us, that one cannot recommend solutions until one has identified the problem. To put it another way, there’s no need for “reform” if there’s nothing wrong – and if there is something amiss, the type of remedy should depend on the nature of the wrong.
Now, we hasten to add that we do not blame the steering committee appointed by the City Manager, or the subcommittees appointed by the steering committee, for failing to produce such a report. They can only be expected to perform the task that was assigned to them – and, in this case, no one told them to investigate whether APD officers in fact were discriminating or using unjustified force against Blacks and other people of color in Alameda.
Go back and look at the Council discussions that led to the formation of the “police reform” committees.
At the outset, two Council members – John Knox White and Jim Oddie – delivered a list of specific directives that they wanted Council to implement immediately – without regard to whether any proven misconduct by APD or its officers actually warranted them. When that maneuver was shot down, Council adopted a list originally devised by Mr. Knox White and Councilwoman Malia Vella of topics they wanted the “police reform” committees to focus on, but the categories finally included were so broadly worded – e.g., “Systemic and Community Racism/Anti-Racism” – that they provided the committees with little guidance about what they were supposed to do.
Likewise, we do not mean to suggest that the steering committee or the subcommittees ignored publicly available data. Indeed, the list of requests for information posted by the City’s Public Information Officer, Sarah Henry, on the City website shows that the committees asked for – and received – statistics, broken down by race, about arrests, citations, traffic stops, and use-of-force incidents. But it appears that they either drew no conclusions from the data or stated conclusions that the data does not support.
We could find only two sentences referring to data about arrests, citations, and traffic stops by APD in the 26 pages of subcommittee reports. One states that, “[A]rrest rates of people of color exceed their proportion of the Alameda population, increasing the potential for negative outcomes for our BIPOC community.” The first part of that sentence is true, but we’re not quite sure whether the second part means anything other than that the more people who get arrested, the more may go to jail. We do not read it as asserting that APD officers are arresting Black people who would not have been arrested had they been white. There is, in any event, no evidence offered for such a claim.
The other states that, “Locally, Alameda police enforce traffic and vehicle citations in a way that disproportionately target[s] BIPOC and low-income individuals.” (Emphasis supplied.)
This assertion is unfortunate. It appears to refer to the data provided by the City that shows a racial disparity in traffic citations, but the conclusion it draws from the data – i.e., that APD targets BIPOC and low-income individuals – is not only unsupported but questionable. As one study noted, “not all racial disparities are due to racially biased policing (or racial profiling).” Instead, there may be “legitimate reasons for racial disparities in traffic policing,” such as that the share of the driving population in a particular racial group consists largely of younger drivers. (The age of the driver is inversely related to risky driving behavior.) In addition, the City does not collect data on the income level of persons cited for traffic violations, so there is no basis at all for the statement that APD is “target[ing] . . . low-income individuals.”
(We should also point out that this same subcommittee suggests in its report that the City Attorney is prosecuting citizens for “low-level” crimes “associated with poverty, mental illness, and substance abuse” such as trespass, public intoxication, and simple possession. In fact, according to City Attorney Yibin Shen – who, we’re sure, would have provided the same information to the subcommittee as he did to us – none of the 15 cases for which his office obtained convictions or probation revocations in 2020 involved the crimes cited by the subcommittee. “On lower-level offenses, such as public intoxication or simple possession,” Mr. Shen told us, “to the extent we receive referrals for prosecution, we generally approach such cases with an eye toward rehabilitation by offering probation, class work or connection to services and not toward incarceration.”)
Let’s imagine, for a moment, what the “police reform” committees might have done had they been given, or chosen for themselves, the mission of determining whether Alameda police are enforcing the law in a discriminatory manner against Blacks and other people of color:
As a general rule, the first step in any discrimination analysis is to take the data, broken down by race, about a particular outcome – say, arrests, traffic stops, and citations – and then compare it with demographic data. If a racial disparity exists, the next, and much more difficult, task is to determine why it exists, since there may be “innocent” explanations – i.e., something other than racial bias – for the disparity.
Here’s some of what the City told the committees about the racial breakdown of arrests, citations and traffic stops:The comparative part of this step gets tricky. One might be tempted to compare the foregoing statistics with demographic data for the City of Alameda. But not all of the persons arrested, cited, or stopped by APD officers are Alameda residents. As a result, comparing the APD outcome data to Alameda population data may lead to the conclusion that a racial disparity exists when none really does (or it may overstate or understate the extent of the disparity).
Indeed, as one article put it, the “most common error” in reports about racial profiling by police is “the use of Census data as the benchmark for comparing the racial makeup of the jurisdiction to the racial makeup of those drivers stopped by the police. When people get into their car they do not limit their travels to their city limits and Census data does not demonstrate who is on the road or who is committing traffic violations.”
We don’t know whether the subcommittees asked the City for data on arrests, citations, and traffic stops broken down by race and residency – the requests for information don’t show that they did. But the Merry-Go-Round did ask the police department for that data, and, four weeks later, we haven’t received it. (Not, of course, that the police department has any obligation to answer our questions.)
For the sake of argument, however, let’s compare the data on arrests, citations, and traffic stops broken down by race with the demographic data for the City of Alameda. Here are the 2019 statistics from the American Community Survey:From such a comparison, it is easy to see that a racial disparity exists in arrests, citations, and traffic stops by APD. For example, Black people represented 7.4% of the total population in Alameda in 2019 – but they accounted for 28% of the warning citations after traffic stops from 2018 through September 2020. For whites, the opposite was true: white people represented 48.2% of the population – but only 29% of the warning citations.
But now comes the hard part. As the Stanford “Open Policing Project,” which examined 100 million traffic stops across the country, put it, a comparison like the foregoing is
a starting point for understanding racial disparities in traffic stops, but [it does] not, per se, provide strong evidence of racially disparate treatment. In particular, per-capita stop rates do not account for possible race-specific differences in driving behavior, including amount of time spent on the road and adherence to traffic laws. For example, if black drivers, hypothetically, spend more time on the road than white drivers, that could explain the higher stop rates we see for the former, even in the absence of discrimination. Moreover, drivers may not live in the jurisdictions where they were stopped, further complicating the interpretation of population benchmarks.
For these reasons, researchers use a variety of techniques to evaluate whether, and to what extent, a racial disparity shows racial bias. The Stanford study, for example, analyzed the data using the “veil of darkness” test for traffic stops and a combination of the “hit rate” test and the “threshold test” for post-stop searches. Similarly, the Center for Policing Equity attempted to determine whether the observed racial disparity was attributable to what it called “community-level” or “police-level” explanations.
We don’t know – but we don’t expect – that the “police reform” subcommittees included people with the requisite expertise to perform this kind of analysis on their own. But Council surely had the ability to provide them with professional assistance – had the Council members pushing for “police reform” thought it worth knowing whether APD in fact was enforcing the traffic laws in a discriminatory manner. (We’ll note that the Center for Policing Equity, which is headquartered in Los Angeles, has done studies of racial disparities in traffic and pedestrian stops and use of force for the City of Berkeley.)
The same point can be made about the use of force against Blacks and other people of color when arrests are made. The subcommittees asked, and received, data about uses of force – including tasers, batons, pepper spray, and carotid holds – by APD from 2014 through 2019. It showed that there were 172 incidents in six years, which comes out to an average of 29 per year. (This infrequency in itself might raise questions about whether there was an overuse of “excessive” force by APD.) And it broke down the incidents by race this way:Subject to the caveat above about the lack of information on residence, this data, too, shows a racial disparity: 29% of the use-of-force incidents between 2014 and 2019 involved Black people (7.4% of the total population in 2019); 40% of such incidents involved white people (48.2% of the population). But it, too, would need to be analyzed further to determine whether the racial disparity resulted from racial bias. Again, this would be no easy task. As one study noted, it is “challenging to disentangle unjustifiable racial disparities in police use-of-force from the disparities that might emerge from justifiable responses by police to differential levels of crime. . . .”
So do Alameda cops discriminate against Blacks and other people of color when they make arrests, issue citations, and pull over drivers? Perhaps – but the subcommittees haven’t cited any hard evidence to prove that they do. And when our local cops make arrests, do they use unjustified force against BIPOC citizens? Again, perhaps – but the subcommittees haven’t offered a solid evidentiary basis for that conclusion, either.
This absence of evidence-based conclusions may not trouble some of our Council members. (We have two – formerly three – in mind; you can find their names above.) “Everyone knows,” to use a favorite phrase of one of them, that APD discriminates and uses unjustified force against BIPOC residents of Alameda because, well, that’s what Those Who Know Best believe cops always do. Maybe that’s why Council didn’t see any reason to assign the “police reform” committees any fact-finding role.
But if that’s so, why set up the whole “community-led” process in the first place? It seems like a helluva imposition on the citizens who volunteered to serve on the steering committee and the subcommittees to reduce their role to simply providing cover for Council members to decree “reforms” they already have decided upon.
The “police reform” subcommittee reports may be found online on the City website at https://www.alamedaca.gov/RESIDENTS/Police-Reform-and-Racial-Equity. We previously posted a link to an aggregated version: recommendationsdraft012221