Civil rights groups and a key D.C. Council member expressed concern this week that city police officials are backing away from plans to collect data on traffic and pedestrian stops to measure possible racial profiling.
Since 2001, D.C. Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey has publicly pledged on several occasions to collect such data, saying it would provide "important insight" into the activities of officers. But Ramsey said this week that he has not decided whether to go ahead with plans to track the race and gender of people stopped by the police.
DC Chief of Police Charles Ramsey.
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The Police Foundation, which was hired by the city to study racial profiling, issued a draft report in May that recommended that the department gather the data. Many other police departments, including Montgomery County's, have been collecting the information in recent years to help determine whether racial profiling is a problem.
Council member Kathy Patterson (D-Ward 3) said that Ramsey's change of heart is "indicative of not keeping a commitment."
"The commitment was made three years ago, and when a commitment was made on the public record to the council, the residents of the District of Columbia and civil rights organizations, that is a commitment that needs to be kept," said Patterson, who chairs the Judiciary Committee.
Patterson said that many residents are distrustful of police and that racial profiling is "a major front-burner issue nationally."
Ramsey first announced his plans to collect data in March 2001 during a controversy over e-mail messages sent between patrol car computers. He disclosed that hundreds of e-mail messages exchanged between officers contained racist, sexist, homophobic or vulgar language. The revelations drew criticism from lawmakers in the District and on Capitol Hill.
An investigation determined that the problems were far less severe than first thought, police officials said. Many of the e-mails were exchanged between black officers or contained rap lyrics, officials said.
In an interview this week, Ramsey said the lack of racial overtones in the e-mails undercut his rationale for launching the data-collection effort. He noted that the police force nearly mirrors the population of the District -- about 65 percent of officers are black, 25 percent are white and 8 percent are Hispanic.
As part of his initial plans to collect data, Ramsey supported the study by the Police Foundation, a nonprofit group that supports law enforcement. The foundation held focus groups with residents and conducted surveys to get a sense of bias, officials said.
In May, the group issued the draft report to police and to an advisory panel of city officials and civil rights groups. In the report, the foundation noted that the department had decided to "eliminate" the data-collection phase of the project, officials said.
Ramsey and others declined to release a copy of the draft report.
"This is still a work in progress," Ramsey said. "We're reviewing the study and will sit down and decide what the best course of action to take is . . . . Maybe we'll collect data; maybe that is not the best course of action."
Police, civil rights groups and city officials are scheduled to review the latest draft of the foundation's report in the coming weeks.
Mark Thompson, chairman of the NAACP's local police task force, said he was surprised to learn of Ramsey's decision to reevaluate his earlier pledge.
"Frankly, I thought we already decided that all roads were going to lead to data collection," Thompson said. "What is there really to decide? . . . What was the point of gathering over these many months to go back to the drawing board on the original question?"
The D.C. Office of Citizen Complaint Review, which investigates claims of police misconduct, is pushing for the data to be gathered. Philip K. Eure, the office's executive director, wrote a letter to Ramsey in May that said the Police Foundation's work underscores the need for the project.
Eure, who declined this week to comment on the matter, stated in the letter to Ramsey that the foundation's findings and "numerous" complaints his office has received "clearly point to the need for the development of a system to detect biased policing."