The following editorial first appeared in the Lincoln Journal Star.
In August, ACLU Nebraska released a report that concluded that law enforcement officers across the state are racially profiling the people they pull over, search and arrest.
Two weeks ago, a coalition of 20 groups, including ACLU Nebraska, Nebraska Appleseed and the Lincoln chapter of the NAACP, called on the Nebraska Crime Commission to investigate four agencies, including the Lincoln Police Department for “apparent” racial profiling.
The Crime Commission, however, has no power to investigate other agencies, nor does it employ investigators. So it rightfully turned down that request.
But the ACLU report and subsequent reaction has, in one sense, opened up a look into possible profiling -- at least in Lincoln.
Lincoln’s Public Safety Director Tom Casady has addressed the profiling charges this week in his “The Director’s Desk” blog and makes some illuminating points, starting with a closer look at demographics.
While 3.5 percent of Lincoln’s population identified as black on the 2010 census, when that number is combined with those who identify as black in combination with another race, the percentage increases to 5.3 percent. Blacks make up 9.6 percent of drivers police stopped in Lincoln.
Using the 3.5 percent figure, blacks are stopped almost three times more than their local population. At 5.3 percent, the stoppage rate drops to less than twice -- a notable difference, according to Casady.
Using Lincoln Police Department data, Casady also presents strong evidence that income plays a role in traffic stops and that arrests, which happen to blacks at a higher rate than whites, are, in large part, a function of outstanding warrants that are checked for during each stop.
The primary argument against the profiling charges, made by Casady and other law enforcement officials, is a simple one -- more traffic stops are made in high crime areas where police are deployed, and those areas are largely lower income and have a higher percentage of minority residents.
“You can question the deployment strategy, but if some of the disparity in stops is emerging from this cause, rather than from police bias, that portion is not racial profiling,” Casady writes.
To alter that pattern, Casady says, police must be persuaded to deploy differently: “We could have a healthy discussion about that, but I think people living and working in Lincoln neighborhoods that are most impacted by crime and disorder generally want more police presence and activity, not less.”
Casady acknowledges that racial bias probably accounts for a “small increment” of the traffic stops and says that will not be tolerated, nor should it be.
Eliminating that bias should be a top priority for police. Traffic stop data should continue to be analyzed. Racial profiling should have no place in law enforcement in Lincoln or anywhere else in the state.