Police policy looks to combat perceived bias

PAWTUCKET - The Rhode Island Police Chiefs' Association yesterday announced a plan to prevent biased policing, even as it continued to deny that the police engage in racial profiling in traffic stops.

The plan calls for more sophisticated training and management policies to deal with the perceived problem of biased policing and a fresh look at the psychological screening of officer candidates to ensure that prejudiced individuals are not hired.

Simply having officers make more of an effort to explain to motorists why they were stopped and, where appropriate, why they were given a summons, might relieve tensions, said Pawtucket Police Chief George L. Kelley III, the association president. The plan includes a public education campaign.

In addition, a standardized statewide form for lodging complaints of biased treatment by the police would be published and made easily obtainable by the public. Kelley said it is important to get timely complaints if police supervisors are to get to the bottom of disputes.

Studies by Northeastern University researchers show that blacks and Hispanics are twice as likely to have their cars searched as are whites in Rhode Island but contraband is found more often in cars driven by whites.

To ensure that the plan is carried out, and to make suggestions as the process unfolds, an advisory committee of minority group representatives would be appointed. The association already has expressions of interest from a number of potential appointees, according to Kelley.

The association represents the chiefs of all 38 municipal police departments. The Rhode Island State Police also will participate in the plan.

Attorney General Patrick C. Lynch attended the announcement, at the Cape Verdean-American Community Development Building downtown, and he endorsed the plan. Lynch resisted committing to a statement that racial profiling exists and said that fair-minded people can perceive situations differently.

Kelley said there was no single triggering event that prompted the association to propose a plan but rather a realization that the police have been unable to dispel the notion that there is racial profiling and biased policing.

In an executive summary incorporated into the plan the chiefs declare that they are "very concerned that the departments they represent have been characterized as racist and as supporting an environment that allows the practice of racial profiling at traffic stops.

"The reality is that the raw data of the 2004-2005 study [by Northeastern University] revealed that four out of every five persons stopped were white and two out of every three persons that may have been subsequently searched were white."

The plan addresses not just racial profiling but the wider issue of biased policing based on race, ethnicity, gender, culture, religion, sexual orientation, age or economic status, pointed out Norman G. Orodenker, chairman of the Rhode Island Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, who consulted with the association in the plan's development. Orodenker said there is palpable bias in motor vehicle stops.

The chiefs note in the plan booklet that they cooperated with the Civil Rights Roundtable, a coalition of advocacy organizations, in devising and implementing a series of measures such as a continuation of traffic data collection and analysis since the termination of studies by Northeastern and the designation of a civil-rights officer in all police departments.

Flawed news reporting over the years has tended to exaggerate the perceived problem of racial profiling, Kelley contended. Officers search motor vehicles infrequently, he said.

Association members took an in-depth look at a six-month sample of 2005 statewide data on traffic stops and found that there were 61 searches in about 9,000 traffic stops, or less than 1 percent, he said. Thirty-six of the vehicles searched were operated by nonwhites and 25 by whites. In those incidents, nine nonwhites and six whites were arrested.

In reviewing the searches, he said, the police found that there were reasonable rationales for each of them, such as vehicles that lacked proper registration. It is Pawtucket Police Department policy, for example, to search any vehicle with an invalid registration, he said.

"We're not looking at big numbers," Kelley commented.

Information contributed by: Gregory Smith