Unreliable police data obscures tracking of racial profiling
Do Maryland police target minorities? The data should tell us, but it can't.
By Lindsay Huth
Capital News Service
BALTIMORE — In an effort to track how police officers are treating minorities, the Maryland General Assembly passed a law requiring police departments to report whom they stop and search.
But 17 years later, the statistics that the police departments around the state are filing are incomplete and unreliable, a Capital News Service analysis has found. That has left the state without the tools to assess if minorities in Maryland are receiving fair treatment from police officers.
“If we’re going to fix the problem, we have to know the problem,” said Jill Carter, a former state delegate, now head of the Baltimore City Office of Civil Rights, who sponsored the most recent version of the bill. “With the current state of the data, we don’t know the extent of the problem.”
Neither the Maryland State Police, whose software corrals the data, nor the state office that compiles the statistics for its annual report can say why the numbers are faulty.
“It would be generous to assume that [incomplete reporting] is an accident,” said Toni Holness, public policy director at the ACLU of Maryland and lead advocate for the bill during its passage. “It’s suspicious that the data are collected and reported in a way that makes it difficult to analyze and draw conclusions.”
Individual departments never see the numbers the software sends to the state. They often compile their own separate statistics that they use to monitor their forces.
“It looks like there are some inaccuracies, but I’m not sure what brought that about,” Lt. Kevin Ayd said of discrepancies in the Maryland Transportation Authority Police’s data.
Even if the data were accurate, the annual reports the governor’s crime office sends to the legislature don’t break down the stops of minorities by department, making it impossible to identify any departments that are profiling motorists because of race.
“Imagine the state of Maryland were two jurisdictions: one stopping only white people, and another stopping only black people. When grouped together, it looks like no one is racially profiling,” Holness said.
The governor’s office’s reports end with a disclaimer: “No definitive conclusions can be drawn from this report” regarding the effect of race on traffic stops.
No one checks the data for accuracy, and the law includes no punishment for departments that file data showing evidence of racial profiling.
“It’s important for us to ask,” Holness said, “after so many reports, so many years later, so many revelations later about policing, what have we really accomplished?”
Some of the discrepancies:
- Agencies reported huge jumps in stop numbers between years. The Maryland Transportation Authority reported approximately 150,000 stops one year and approximately 50,000 the next.
- Other agencies reported no searches. Or they reported thousands of searches, but not one that turned up contraband.
- The Baltimore Police Department’s records are missing 17 of the 21 details about each stop that are required by law — including where the car was stopped and whether the person was arrested or received a warning, citation or repair order.
Baltimore’s problems collecting reliable information were uncovered by the Department of Justice during an investigation last year, which revealed that large numbers of stops and searches were absent from police records. When officers did report stops, “they do not consistently record important information connected to it,” the Justice Department report noted.
“I don’t think it’s consistent, I don’t think it’s clean, I don’t think that our officers were given adequate training,” Ganesha Martin, compliance chief for the Baltimore police, said of the department’s data.
But departments across the state also reported erratic data. Many have only guesses about why their reports are spotty — and disagree about who is responsible for ensuring their accuracy.
"We know there are certainly gaps in the data,” said Jeffrey Zuback, chief of research and analysis at the Governor’s Office of Crime Control and Prevention, which receives and analyzes the data. “If there were more resources dedicated to this effort we could better address these problems.”
Baltimore’s problem is most pressing.
The department entered into consent decree with the U.S. Department of Justice in April, forcing the police to reform the discriminatory traffic stops and other unconstitutional practices the department’s investigation uncovered.
Martin said “there’s no way” the department can comply with the consent decree without “data at our fingertips.”
That means data on crime, suspects and traffic stops.
But the city department’s traffic stop data has large gaps, showing just 4,410 stops in 2009 — and more than 35,000 the next year reported. The total climbed to 50,000, then 80,000 in the following years. The real numbers are anyone’s guess, but Zuback said annual stop numbers should be relatively consistent, barring changes in policing patterns.
Those records show just 36 searches by the Baltimore police in 2009 — and none that turned up drugs, weapons or other contraband. In fact, in the five years of data analyzed, the data show approximately 50 searches that found those items.
Baltimore Police Department officials point to outdated technology that lags behind the rest of the state.
Nearly all departments across Maryland have been using computers in their patrol cars, along with the state police’s software, to scan driver’s licenses and enter stop data on site since at least 2013. That technology has been in place for decades in other big city departments nationwide.
But Baltimore officers still scrawl their reports on paper forms and drop them in mailboxes back in the office. Another officer drives those stacks of reports to headquarters for yet other officers to type into the system, sometimes months later, in the case of stop tickets, Martin said.
Under the consent decree, Baltimore expects cars to be outfitted with computers over the next year, which will “definitely help” boost the department’s capacity to collect accurate stop data, said Paul Herman, the Baltimore Police Department’s chief of data and technology.
“Our data quality is not good at all, so there’s no point in upgrading the technology and not making sure our data quality isn’t upgraded as well,” Martin said.
But other departments, even those with better technology, are reporting incomplete numbers, and officials are unsure why.
“I do not know why it is zero,” Lt. George Bacorn said in an email about why the data show the Denton, Maryland, police department stopped no vehicles in 2013.
“It looks like there was either a flaw in the system or another compliance issue,” Planning Manager Melissa Schulze said in an email about why the data show the Montgomery County Police Department conducted no searches that found contraband or property in 2012.
“We do not see any reason why the numbers would have dropped to such a low number,” Capt. William Everts said in an email about why the data show the New Carrollton Police Department’s stops dropped 70 percent between 2013 and 2015.
Reporting these traffic stop numbers is mandatory by law — a law designed to catch departments engaging in racial profiling.
Robert Wilkins, a black attorney, sued the Maryland State Police in 1993 alleging he was stopped because of his race. The landmark case drew attention to the perils of “driving while black,” and the case’s settlement mandated the department record its traffic stop numbers, according to an ACLU memo.
The reporting requirement was expanded to all Maryland police departments with a 2001 law, which specified more than 20 details — including the driver’s race, the reason for the stop and whether the driver was searched or not — that must be reported for each stop.
Departments across the state send these records to the Governor’s Office of Crime Control and Prevention, which aggregates the data and produces annual reports.
“The data that comes to us is the data we analyze,” Zuback said. “We process 800,000 traffic stops a year, so there’s no feasible way for someone to check them all.”
The Maryland State Police, who developed and maintains the software through which departments can submit their traffic stop records to the state, has no authority over the data’s accuracy either.
Maryland State Police Sgt. Chris Corea said that role falls to the Governor’s Office of Crime Control and Prevention, and each agency is free to develop its own data collection and audit process.
Baltimore’s poor data collection practices have come to light nearly 20 years after Martin O’Malley was elected mayor and began implementing data-driven governance in the city.
“There were a lot of things we used to do that fell by the wayside, probably for reasons of budget, probably for reasons of short-term political embarrassment,” O’Malley said in an interview with Capital News Service.
“When one publishes numbers about bad things or takes responsibility for correcting bad things, any politician in office at the time absorbs that splash,” he said.
Carter and Holness also said the Baltimore Police Department mostly interacts with residents on foot, not in cars, but the law requires only vehicle stops be reported. Car stops made using radars, license plate readers or other technology aren’t reported, either.
And because the governor’s office reports are not broken down by individual departments, officials cannot identify those engaging in discriminatory practices, Carter and Holness said.
“It’s not just about reporting a bunch of numbers,” Carter said. “It’s about reporting numbers in a way that they can be analyzed to determine where we need more work on ending racial profiling.”