A new report released by Montgomery County shows racial disparities in county police interactions with Black and brown residents.
Black people make up about 18% of the county’s population, but in 2018, they represented 55% of use of force cases and 32% of traffic stops, according to the county’s Office of Legislative Oversight, or OLO.
In 2017, Black people accounted for 44% of arrests.
The County Council asked the Office of Legislative Oversight to analyze best practices, including a review of how data are collected and what datasets Montgomery County police have available.
The OLO review specifically focused on 2019 traffic stops and violations, annual reports of policing data from state and local sources, and interviews with police department officials.
“These racial and ethnic disparities in police interactions with the public suggest that disparities may characterize other measures of police-community interactions,” the report says. “In turn, pervasive disparities in police-community interactions may signal biased policing. While disparities do not prove biased policing, they signal that unconstitutional policing could be a problem that merits investigation.”
OLO used police department data to try to calculate the percentage of Montgomery County residents, by race and ethnicity, who were involved in traffic stops by Montgomery County police.
However, the data do not distinguish non-county residents from county residents. All motorists are grouped together.
According to the report, 27% of Black adults had a traffic stop in 2019 , while other races experienced less: 15% of white adults, 17% of Latino or Latina adults, and 7% of Asian adults.
For traffic violations in 2019, 46% of Black men received a traffic violation , while 17% of white men, 32% of Latino men, and 42% of men listed as “other” received violations.
The County Council Public Safety Committee discussed the report on Thursday. Elaine Bonner-Tompkins, a senior legislative analyst for OLO, told council members that staff members’ research found that MCPD should be tracking more data for police interactions with the public.
The police department does not track street stops, or stop and frisks, that do not result in arrest, citation or summons, she said. It also does not maintain an electronic database of criminal and civil citations.
The department does not include ethnicity information for all of its datasets. The internal affairs database does not collect race and ethnicity data on complainants, according to the report.
The department should regularly survey residents and staff members on perceptions of police-community relations, the report said.
More data should be made public, Bonner-Tompkins said, since the MCPD internal datasets offer more information than the department’s annual report or Data Montgomery, the county’s open data source.
The annual reports and open data sources include only a subset of the information the police collect, such as arrest data, she said.
The three committee members — Council President Sidney Katz, Council Vice President Tom Hucker and Council Member Gabe Albornoz — were joined at the briefing by Council Members Will Jawando and Craig Rice.
Natalia Carrizosa, a legislative analyst for OLO, said the office recommends further investigation into potential policing bias.
There are a few caveats to the data, she said. The traffic data does not account for drivers stopped more than once.
“So a rate of 17% does not necessarily mean that 17% of white men were stopped in one year,” Carrizosa said. “Additionally, some drivers are residents of other jurisdictions.”
Police officers can search a car during a traffic stop if there’s probable cause, someone is arrested, it’s consensual, or a K-9 alerts an officer.
For searches conducted during traffic stops in 2019, 54% of Black drivers were searched under probable cause, compared to 37% of white drivers, 37% of Latino or Latina drivers, and 34% of Asian drivers.
Probable cause refers to a legal standard in which the officer has a sufficient reason, based on facts, to believe that a crime was committed or that certain property is connected to a crime.
Another caveat is that the data only include traffic stops from MCPD officers. The data did not include traffic stops by state troopers or municipal police officers.
Twenty-two percent of Latino or Latina drivers received six or more traffic violations compared to 17% of Black drivers, 10% of white drivers and 7% of Asian drivers.
Drivers were most likely to be stopped in the district of Bethesda, Glen Echo and Somerset, where there were 14 stops per 100 residents. Black residents make up 4% of the district population, but 20% of the traffic stops.
The lowest rate for a district was 5 stops per 100 residents. There was a three-way tie. Damascus was one district, Potomac was another and Darnestown/North Potomac was the third.
Black drivers ranged from 7% of the traffic stops in Barnesville to 49% in Burtonsville and White Oak.
“Overall, violations related to actions taken while driving, such as speeding or failing to stop when required, tended to show less disproportionality by [race] while violations related to things like registration documents, registration plates and drivers’ licenses were more likely to reflect a disproportionate number of Black and sometimes Latinx drivers,” Carrizosa said.
The report included six recommendations:
● The County Council define the term “detention” in the county’s community policing law to include all stops, searches, citations, arrests and use of force.
● MCPD track and report data on street stops (i.e., stop and frisks) and field interviews
● MCPD regularly survey residents and staff on police-community relations and contacts
● MCPD build capacity to use policing data to advance best practices in constitutional and community policing
● MCPD collect and report race and ethnicity data for every policing dataset
● MCPD post additional policing data on Data Montgomery that aligns with its internal datasets, including data on criminal and civil citations
Albornoz said he was “blown away” by the data and that a lot of information is not gathered when it should be.
“I know there’s obviously context here that’s important,” he said. “But I also think that to me, it provides a degree of evidence that there is underlying bias, whether we want to admit it or not, and that it’s something we have to pay attention to, focus on and address holistically moving forward.”
Albornoz suggested tracking individual police officers’ interactions with the public.
When Katz asked how many traffic stops were found to be legitimate when they went to court, Police Chief Marcus Jones said data are tracked in a state system that the county doesn’t have access to outside of individual case searches.
Jones said reviewing each case “would be very cumbersome to actually capture individuals who either prepaid the fine, whether they went to court and what was the result of going to court. We don’t gather that information.”
Jones said the police department,agrees with many of the OLO recommendations. An important part of the conversation is that the department has been developing a new records management system for the last two years, he said.
The department is currently in the procurement process that would allow the department to establish OLO’s recommended datasets. It is expected to be finished this year.
Jones said the council should note that many people work in Montgomery County, but don’t live in the county, which could skew traffic data on who is being stopped.
“This doesn’t give an opportunity to show even leniency in certain cases with officers,” Jones said of officers who might give a warning of issuing a violation .
The department doesn’t track stop and frisk data, since it’s collected by a state system. To track the data, the department would have to request access from the state or build a separate component from the state.
Jawando said that if the county can’t answer why it has disparate data, then policy makers and the police department aren’t doing their jobs.
“We can’t make the proper changes and make sure that we have equitable policing if we don’t know the answers to some of these very critical questions,” he said.
County Executive Marc Elrich has asked the council to approve an audit of the police department to get more data.
Jawando said the additional data are needed to get a better picture of policing in the county.
“What do we have and what is not being publicly reported? We need to address that as soon as possible,” he said. “Anything we have internally should be publicly reported.”
Some records are only kept on paper copies, such as trespass orders, Jawando said, and didn’t always have race and ethnicity recorded or tracked on them.
“I think that we know we have some deficiencies here that we need to address,” he said.
Bonner-Tompkins said the county’s data were not easy for researchers to analyze.
“The traffic data is the strongest, most comprehensive data source,” she said. “The paper stuff — we just don’t know what’s going on because it’s on paper.”
The office did not have the capacity to analyze each dataset, she said.
“There was only so much we could do with what we had,” she said.
Positive outcomes in police interactions also need to be measured, Jawando said.
Hucker said he was concerned about expecting officers to identify someone’s race for records since ethnicity is not listed on drivers’ licenses.
“No one is going to be good at that and [it] leads to inaccuracy in the data,” he said.
Jones said police officers do not ask for drivers’ ethnicity on a traffic stop.
“You look at their driver’s license and you make a judgement call,” he said. “With a very diverse community, it leaves it open for interpretations in many different ways. We could have an extensive discussion on that alone. That’s just something we have not traditionally done in any regards from that perspective, to be respectful.”
When information is taken, police officers scan a driver’s license. Information is loaded into a state system.
Rice said some police precincts seem to do better in avoiding potential racial bias in traffic stops. That could be explained by better police training on the plus side or a lack of resources or support on the negative side, he said.
“We know that there are some officers who are on our force who are not going to reinforce the implicit bias training that they have, and unfortunately, are doing things the wrong way,” he said. “This data will help us to [home] in on those kinds of things.”
Katz said the council should formally approve the recommendations through a vote, which some council members are working on drafting for action.
Briana Adhikusuma can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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