In a city where African Americans make up less than half the population, 70 percent of people stopped by D.C. police in a recent one-month period were black, according to a report released Monday. But authorities said the disparity does not necessarily indicate racial bias in local law enforcement.
The 14-page report, which provides data on 11,000 stops from July 22 to Aug. 18, is the Metropolitan Police Department’s first, long-delayed response to a 2016 D.C. law requiring the collection of detailed demographic information about people stopped by police, regardless of whether they are arrested.
The report isn’t limited to traffic stops. It defines a stop as any “temporary investigative detention of a person for the purpose of determining whether probable cause exists to make an arrest.” It adds, “If a person is under a reasonable impression that he or she is not free to leave the [officer’s] presence a stop has occurred.”
Also Thursday, the raw data that was used to compile the report were uploaded to the department’s website so it can be reviewed by several groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union of D.C., that filed a lawsuit to force the department to comply with the data-collection mandate.
A spokeswoman for the ACLU had no immediate comment on the data, saying “it’s going to take a while” for the group’s lawyers to study the information.
While African Americans made up 70 percent of the people in all police stops, they were 86 percent of those involved in what the report called “non-ticket stops,” defined as “stops that involved an arrest, search” or police action other than traffic enforcement. The report said 15 percent of people in all stops, and 7 percent of those involved in non-ticket stops, were white.
As of July 2018, the District’s population was 46.4 percent African American and 45.6 percent white, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
The reason for disparity in police stops “is the number one question that remains unanswered,” Newsham said when asked about the possibility of racial bias. “The questions really is, what should our stops look like? . . . This report is a snapshot of what our stops do look like for a four-week period. But we don’t know what they should look like.”
He said, “We’ve already reached out to a couple of organizations to come in and get a sense of that.”
The data collection is part of an initiative called the Neighborhood Engagement Achieves Results law, known as the NEAR Act, which passed the D.C. Council unanimously three years ago. The legislation transformed the District’s approach to fighting crime by seeking to address the underlying causes of violence and confront those challenges using a health-based model.
It established a city agency, the Office of Neighborhood Safety and Engagement, to oversee programs related to the effort. The law also requires police to collect a wide range of data when officers stop and frisk people or conduct stops, including the person’s race, ethnicity and gender, and duration of the stop.
In complaining about the long delay in providing the data, the ACLU said the police department had “obfuscated, dragged its feet and even misled the public.” After the group and other plaintiffs filed a lawsuit in D.C. Superior Court, a judge in June ordered the department to complete the data collection.
Newsham said the delay was caused by a funding problem, since solved, that left the department with insufficient computer capabilities. Although the department will continue making raw data on police stops available to the public, he said, it will not regularly distill that data into a report, as it did Monday.