Low profile

Bedeviled by bureaucracy and political inaction, Sacramento's racial-profiling advisory body is stuck in limbo

City leaders gave the green light to a commission to study racial profiling by police—then left it in limbo.

City leaders gave the green light to a commission to study racial profiling by police—then left it in limbo.

Sacramento law enforcement’s documented trouble with racial profiling hasn’t dissolved, but the commission tasked with addressing it pretty much has.

The city’s Community Racial Profiling Commission is mired in a kind of bureaucratic limbo. Because of the specific way the city envisioned the commission and a lack of political will to update it, members haven’t convened a meeting since September 2011 and—bizarrely enough—can’t formally discuss anything having to do with racial profiling.

This despite being confronted with new tales of racially biased policing and having four-plus years of backlogged traffic-enforcement data to analyze.

“The things that people bring to us, we can’t do anything with because it’s technically outside our scope,” explained the Rev. Ashiya Odeye, who’s served on the commission for more than two years.

The Catch-22 is that the commission was originally established to make recommendations based on a 2008 traffic-enforcement study. Because no new study has been commissioned since then, the commission’s hands—and lips—are locked.

In 2008, a data-collection project from Lamberth Consulting analyzed traffic-enforcement patterns at 55 locations throughout Sacramento and confirmed what had long been speculated: Police officers were stopping blacks and Hispanics at a disproportionate rate and subjecting them to more pat-down searches and probation inquiries than their white and Asian counterparts.

The report caused a stir at the time, with the police department and the Office of Public Safety Accountability calling the results “alarming” and implementing a handful of training and internal-tracking measures in response.

No one can say what effect, if any, those reforms have had on racial profiling.

“We don’t know, because we don’t have another study out there, which we would love to have,” explained commission chairwoman Danette Brown.

The chief obstacle to commissioning another study, predictably, is money, though commission members believe they would be able to seek their own funding—as well as conduct community outreach and start discussing racial profiling again—if city council takes up an amendment that’s been floating around for two years now.

“We’re at the mercy of the city council. They can pretty much abolish us at any time. That would be a shame,” Brown said. “There’s really great, passionate people on the commission, but their hands are tied, unfortunately.”

Even without a new traffic-enforcement study, other available statistics reveal that racially biased policing remains a trip wire in the capital city. Historically, OPSA says that most of the people who complain about police abuses in Sacramento have been black or Hispanic.

Of the 191 formal citizen complaints made against the police department last year, 51 percent came from black and Latino residents.

While the police department commissioned its own somewhat maligned traffic-stop study in 2000—one that downplayed the nature of the problem using dubious evaluation models—police officials have been active in working with the commission since its 2004 inception. The department continues to compile raw traffic-stop data for the commission and, before the commission went into hibernation, police officials made regular presentations on hiring and training practices, traffic-enforcement trends and internal investigations.

“It’s supposed to be monitoring us, you know,” reasoned department program analyst Mary McFadden.

Odeye and his fellow commissioners likewise think the commission still has a purpose.

“Racial profiling is still going on,” the minister contended. “The [2008 traffic-stop project] was only the tip of the iceberg. Most of the people being harassed are on foot and on bicycles. Especially bicycles.”

Between the months of July and September alone, the police department initiated 8,124 traffic stops. Officer Doug Morse said the department has collected statistical data on nearly every one of those stops. But the commission is unable to look at this data under its current scope.

A slight drop in police-misconduct complaints between 2010 and 2011 makes OPSA director Francine Tournour believe the public’s perception of the police department might be improving, though she allows for other possibilities.

“Just because people aren’t complaining doesn’t mean they’re happy,” Tournour acknowledged.

For instance, residents may have stopped filing complaints because they have less faith those complaints will be investigated. Tournour is a one-woman show, after all, and other watchdog groups—like the commission and the district attorney’s office, which stopped investigating all officer-involved shootings last year—have fallen by the wayside.

Odeye said the written amendment would free the commission to spearhead its own community-based studies every few years by reaching out to local universities and professional organizations and by actively pursuing grants and alternative-funding opportunities, all of which it hasn’t been permitted to do.

“All we need is someone on the city council to back it,” Odeye said. “The reports need to be done on a regular basis until we solve [the problem]. And who knows when that will be.”