Accurate But Not True - Racial Gaps in Milwaukee Traffic Stops
When I first read the story the story on racial profiling that recently appeared in the local newspaper, my reaction was that it was a bit unfair. The more I analyze what was written (and the way it was written), the more I understand why Milwaukee Police Chief Ed Flynn was so upset.
The headline in the story reads "Racial gap found in traffic stops in Milwaukee". The first paragraph says: "A black Milwaukee driver is seven times as likely to be stopped by city police as a white resident driver, a Journal Sentinel analysis of nearly 46,000 traffic stops has found". Predictably, this story gave instant fuel for some of the usual race baiters to denounce law enforcement.
In dismissing the premise of the story, Chief Flynn says that he deploys larger concentrations of police in high crime areas as a way of protecting the public. Since those high crime areas tend to have larger concentrations of minorities, Flynn argues that it's not surprising that more minorities are being stopped. Chief Flynn's arguments in this regard strike me as being pretty compelling.
As an aside, I can certainly relate to Flynn's point.
In the late 80's, I was in charge of narcotics prosecutions for the U.S. Attorney's Office. For a portion of that time, our emphasis was on street gangs in Milwaukee who were distributing crack cocaine and generally trying to kill anyone who got in their way. Not surprisingly, a large number of defendants turned out to be African-Americans. This wasn't because we were racist, it was just because there weren't too many white guys slinging crack cocaine in the inner city back then.
For his part, Sheriff David Clarke thought even less about this story than Chief Flynn. Here's the first sentence of a letter from Clarke to the reporter: "Mr. Poston, You asked for my reaction to your findings that my officers are engaging in discrimination as a result of their traffic stop activity. In a word, my reaction is "Bull****!"
You've got to love David Clarke.
In just casually reading the story however, I confess that I failed to note what I consider to be a more fundamental issue. This was pointed out to me today in an e-mail from a Milwaukee Police Officer.
The beginning of the story is carefully written. As noted above, it says that "A black Milwaukee driver is seven times as likely to be stopped by city police as a white resident driver" and "Milwaukee police pulled over Hispanic city motorists nearly five times as often as white drivers".
I think a reasonable person, reading this piece quickly, would assume that for every white driver stopped by the Milwaukee Police Department, 7 black drivers are stopped. That's sure how I read it at first. That assumption however would be inaccurate.
The numbers cited refer not to the total population of drivers stopped by Milwaukee Police - only that portion of the population who are City residents ("black Milwaukee driver" and "Hispanic city motorist"). In other words, if Milwaukee Police stopped a driver from Whitefish Bay or West Allis or South Milwaukee or Chicago, the racial data collected by the cops was not included in the analysis. Since the non-residents who were stopped by MPD appear to be largely non-minorities, the overall ratio of minority to non-minority traffic stops is actually much lower than 7 to 1 (for African-Americans) or 5 to 1 (for Hispanics).
In an e-mail to me, the reporter emphasized that "this stuff was already covered in the main story and methodology" and that he "was very transparent on how the analysis was conducted". Here's what was written in the main story: "The disparities found in Milwaukee are greater than other large metro police departments where traffic stop data is collected, including Charlotte, Kansas City, Raleigh and St. Louis. In those jurisdictions, black drivers were stopped 1.6 and 2.2 times as often as white drivers ... . Hispanic drivers in those cities were between 0.7 and 1.2 times as likely to be stopped as whites, taking into account the overall driving age population. Using the same measure, Milwaukee's disparities were 3.9 for blacks and 2.1 for Hispanics."
With all due respect to Mr. Poston and "transparency", I'm not sure that average reader would understand the foregoing paragraph to mean that the more inflammatory numbers included only City residents - not all persons stopped by the Milwaukee Police. In the eighth paragraph of a separate story on the methodology of the study, the paper does clearly state: "The analysis focused on stops only of Milwaukee residents to exclude drivers who live outside the city." It seems to me that putting this nugget in the main story would have gone a long way towards offering some context.
In consultation with "3 leading researchers", the newspaper decided to exclude drivers who live outside the city "in order to have an apples-to-apples comparison, because there is no way to know the racial makeup of everyone who travels through a police jurisdiction." I don't know. It seems to me that (1) if you're trying to find patterns of racial profiling and (2) the cops don't know whether someone is a City non-resident or resident before they make a stop, tossing out the non-resident stops is more than a little result-oriented.
While I'm at it, shouldn't you need to know the race of the officer making the stop before you draw any conclusions? Just asking?
Here's the bottom line. I get the impression that the newspaper has gotten a lot of heat over this particular story. I frankly think a lot of that criticism is fair. At best, this "racial profiling analysis" strikes me as correlation without a lot of causation. At worst, in a phrase popularized by the great movie "Absence of Malice", it's "accurate but not true".
In any event, take the story for what it 's worth. Still, in my opinion, using this information to assume that members of the Milwaukee Police Department or Milwaukee County Sheriff's Department are unfairly singling out minorities when making traffic stops would be to do a great injustice to these law enforcement officers.
And that's the truth!