Among 51 law enforcement agencies in Oregon, only the Clackamas County Sheriff’s Office had significant disparities in two out of the three metrics used to assess bias in traffic and pedestrian stops, according to a state report analyzing data from officers stops.
Most significantly, while deputies with the Clackamas Sheriff’s Office improved their success rate in contraband searches of both Black and white people – suggesting officers were being more judicious in who they searched – their success rate for Latinx drivers remained constant.
Statewide, the report said searches found contraband 50% of the time for Latinx drivers and pedestrians and 44% for Black people. White people were found to have contraband in 53.6% of searches.
Clackamas’ disparities will trigger a closer examination of the agency’s policies and practices, as mandated by new state guidelines. The sheriff’s office did not respond to questions about how it plans to address the findings in the report.
While the Clackamas County Sheriff’s Office was the only office singled out in the state report for further review, a number of agencies had disparities in at least one category.
“While most agencies are not referred to [the Department of Public Safety Standards and Training] in this analysis, that does not necessarily mean that the results for all those agencies should be ignored or are not close to the threshold of identification,” the report from the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission stated.
The Oregon Criminal Justice Commission used three methods to assess for bias in police-civilian interactions. They compared the racial and ethnic breakdown of stops during daytime and nighttime on the assumption that officers can more readily discern race when it’s light out. The report also looked at whether or not a person is cited, searched or arrested, and how often a search finds anything illegal in the person’s possession.
The state report found Clackamas County deputies had both a notable rate of unsuccessful searches and disparities in how they treated drivers after they were stopped.
Of the 2,802 Latinx people CCSO stopped between July 1, 2019 and June 30, 2020, nearly 38% were cited, searched or arrested. That’s compared to 34.4% for white people stopped in similar situations. For the 1,227 Black people stopped, 37% were cited, searched or arrested compared to 32.4% of white people.
Disparities in policing were evident in many parts of Oregon, according to the report.
The Eugene and Hillsboro police departments, Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office and Oregon State Police also showed discrepancies in how they cited Black and Latinx people. When arrests and searches were taken individually, 2.9% of the 6,227 Black people stopped by the Portland Police Bureau were searched and 6.1% were arrested. For white people in similar circumstances, PPB searched 1.9% and arrested 4.3%.
The Washington County Sheriff’s Office cited, searched or arrested 32% of the Latinx people it stopped compared to only 26.6% of white people.
In total, the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission reviewed 501,064 traffic stops across the state between July 1, 2019 and June 30, 2020. This is the second year the state has issued the report after a 2017 state law made it mandatory. All law enforcement agencies in the state with more than 25 officers submitted data.
“It’s more concerning when it’s year-to-year very consistent or if they have multiple points that we flag them on,” said Ken Sanchagrin, interim executive director for the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission, which authored the report.
Year-over-year, the statewide data showed improvement along some key metrics, but analysts think a lot of that change is likely due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
This year, Portland police searched 1.8% of the 36,517 people stopped. Contraband was found in 35% of Black people, 38% of Latinx people, and 40% of white people. Last year, PPB searched 5% of people they stopped and a significantly smaller portion were found to have anything illegal in their possession. The white hit rate was 25%, 11% for Black people, and 23% for Latinx people.
Sanchagrin said similar trends happened in jurisdictions across the state.
“Most of the agencies became more successful in their searches because they were being more selective as to who they search,” he said, hypothesizing that the coronavirus made officers less inclined to want to physically interact with people. “Because now you’re not just doing roving searches...you’re doing it based on your true training and expectations.”
While the data represents just one small portion of the criminal justice system, even small bias in interactions with police can lead to more severe disparities later.
In 2019, data revealed that Oregon State Police were ticketing Black and Latinx drivers at higher rates than white drivers. When the Criminal Justice Commission examined the results closer, OSP said their records show Black and Latinx people are more likely to have a suspended license from other interactions with the criminal justice system, such as failing to pay fines or other fees.
Those interactions can have a snowballing effect and magnify systemic inequalities. Even if you could have a perfectly objective computer conducting traffic stops, critics say, the criminal justice system overall – a system that suspends Black and Latinx licenses at a higher rate and punishes people for not being able to pay fees, for example – is still racist.
“All of this is baked in,” said Aaron Roussell, associate professor of sociology at Portland State University who studies community policing. “So I’m skeptical of the stats except as a tool to be able to demonstrate that even at the level of officer interactions there are problems.”
Even then, he said, the numbers themselves should be taken with a grain of salt.
“Race data is largely in the hands of police, but so is literally all the data,” he said. “If we’re collecting data because we don’t trust police, why do we trust police generated data?”
Police could inflate the number of white people stopped, searched or cited, he said, in order to balance out their numbers. This summer, a number of protesters of color told OPB that their race was inaccurately recorded as white when they were arrested.
Roussell said reports like this focus policymakers on technical fixes to policing disparities, solutions like more cameras or better officer training. But he thinks the entire premise of the report is worth questioning.
“We are already accepting the notion that stops are a thing we should definitely be doing and doing many of. It’s not questioning the number of stops. It’s not questioning the desire of the public to be stopped at all,” Roussell said, suggesting Oregonians should instead be focused on deeper systemic issues with policing.
“This is an abnormal thing that we’ve normalized.”