So-called stop-and-frisk encounters have declined in Charlottesville over the past year for both white and black people.
But police still stop African Americans proportionally more often than whites, based on population.
It is in this environment that the Charlottesville Police Department is trying to hire an analyst to examine stop-and-frisk data.
The position is brand new, created to help the department — and the city — deal with a set of statistics that imply bias in officers’ treatment of the people they encounter.
Some critics probably would argue that there is no “implication” of bias, but instead that the statistics amount to prima facie evidence of inequity.
Where lies the truth?
Stop-and-frisk is the layperson’s term for encounters in which police temporarily detain individuals for questioning or searches based on immediate suspicions.
The formal terms used by the CDP are “investigative detentions” and “warrantless searches.”
The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects people from “unreasonable searches and seizures” and addresses the need for warrants to be approved, based on “probable cause” of illegal activity, before a search can be conducted.
However, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that “a reasonably prudent officer” can conduct street stops (temporary detentions) and pat-downs or frisks (non-invasive searches) if he or she has good reason to believe that the public’s or the officer’s safety is at risk, or the subject has committed or is about to commit a crime.
That provides plenty of leeway for officers to exercise their own judgment. A reasonably prudent officer would consider a variety of subtle cues, including body language, before stopping someone on the street — as well as more specific data such as descriptions of suspects wanted for recent crimes.
At its best, the system works to protect the public. Take the debate over mass shootings, for example: If an officer thought a furtive-looking man at a downtown festival was clutching a package that might contain weapons, we wouldn’t want her to go through the delay of obtaining a warrant. If she stopped the man and found weapons and a manifesto of destruction, we’d praise her for quick thinking and quick action.
But if she stopped him and found no weapons, if he was a person of color just minding his own business, if he did not in fact appear “furtive” at all, then critics could suspect that racial profiling was involved.
This is an extreme example for purposes of illustration; real-life encounters are much less clear-cut. And since officers have discretion to make reasonable stops, the subjective definition of reasonableness comes into play.
Charlottesville officials hope that detailed statistical analysis will eliminate some of the subjectivity in determining whether stop-and-frisks were reasonable or not.
An added staff member to crunch these numbers was proposed almost a year ago by Chief RaShall Brackney. The city finally advertised the position last May — but did not “get the types of candidates we were looking for,” said CPD spokesman Tyler Hawn.
The job was posted again last month, with a few tweaks in wording and a more defined focus.
The qualifications for the job are somewhat daunting. Applicants must have a juris doctor degree or at least five years’ law enforcement experience in a supervisory role. The requirements reflect the position’s pivot point between police work and constitutional law. Salary range is $47,191 to $87,297.
While it might not be possible to completely reduce such a complex issue as perceived bias down to simple statistical summaries, the attempt should be made.
It is important to show the community that Charlottesville authorities are responsive to their concerns about stop-and-frisk; investing in more analysis of the subject is one way to do that.
Additionally, the effort will produce some results; it is not just an exercise for show. Obtaining metrics — measures — to guide policy decisions is a way to ensure that decisions are grounded in fact, not just sentiment.
Because of the inherent subjectivity of the Supreme Court’s instructions on Fourth Amendment stops, statistical analysis is not the final answer to the city’s questions.
But even if deeper analysis falls short of providing perfect clarity, it will give city leaders more information than they have now. And, surely, that will be useful.