A little-known group that helps law enforcement agencies gather racial information on police stops around the state is holding public hearings in Salem next week.
The Law Enforcement Contacts Policy and Data Review Committee has since 2006 held monthly hearings that include a public testimony and input session. They're publicized in all the local papers, but citizens rarely attend.
According to Brian Renauer, director of the Criminal Justice Policy Research Institute at PSU, that's because the ongoing effort by law enforcement agencies, lawmakers and community members to track information — and decide how to use it — is still evolving.
"In some ways even though this committee has been around for awhile nobody has any best practice yet, so to speak," Renauer says. "So everybody's kind of moving forward blindly."
The profiling committee was started by the Oregon State Legislature in 2001 to gather statistical information about the racial characteristics of police stops.
Originally staffed by the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission, in 2005 the Commission transferred staffing duties to the Criminal Justice Policy Institute at PSU, which organizes meetings, and takes care of all the daily tasks in conjunction with a voluntary board of advisors.
In addition, the Institute works with police jurisdictions around Oregon to set up computerized database systems for logging police stop information for the purpose of studying the issue of race and law enforcement.
It's all done voluntarily. "We have sent out emails and letters to police chiefs and sheriffs around the state asking them if they'd like technical assistance with creating a database of stop data," Renauer said. "That's what we're there for."
Renauer, who serves on the City of Portland's Racial Profiling Committee, says the real breakthrough in addressing the pervasive racial patterns in police stops is elusive – but achievable.
It's a matter of better data, better communication, and more attention to racism.
"It's not just a police issue, it's not just a community issue, it's a broader issue in our society, in my mind," he says.
"But if you're going to shine a light on police, you need also to look at prosecution and sentencing and incarceration, because there's disproportionality at every point in the system."
On one side, Renauer says study after study has shown that racial profiling is a real phenomenon; on the other hand, law enforcement officials and others argue that the stop data information is inadequate to prove that profiling is systematic.
"One of the driving issues here is the stop data," Renauer says. "What does it tell us? Because there is a lack of agreement, whether it's police, or academics – they're all drawing very different opinions about what it means."
In academic research circles, the police stop data – which has been compiled since 2001 – is still considered new and incomplete.
Among members of the state profiling committee, Renauer says, there's a sense that the statistical data isn't sufficient, for example, to win a court case.
"When I talk about the data before government officials, they say, 'so what does it tell me? Is there racial profiling?' The community says, 'there's definitely a problem with racial profiling.' And the academics say, 'there are a lot of flaws in this data.'"
The research institute crunches stop data statistics for the Oregon State Police, as well as police departments in Corvallis, Hillsboro, and Beaverton. They're in discussions with the Portland Police Department to report on their data as well.
The institute has also been instrumental in setting up the only program in the state to train police officers in how to avoid racial profiling behavior.
The training – aimed at creating a core group of sensitivity trainers within each police department – has been developed from a curriculum about profiling written by the Simon Weisenthal Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles.
The LECC Data Review Subcommittee Meeting convenes Wednesday, July 16 at 9 at the Department of Public Safety Standards and Training, 4190 Aumsville Highway, Salem.
For more information contact Renauer at (503) 725-8090.