(SAN DIEGO) -- Police chiefs from around the world this week grappled with ways to develop traffic stop procedures that avoid targeting minorities.
"Racial profiling does exist. It is clearly a public perception and a reality," said Gary Kaufmann, a psychologist with the Michigan State Police who earlier this year worked on a project to interview 131 police officers from around the country.
Kaufmann's comments came during the International Association of Chiefs of Police on Tuesday.
The project found that some officers did pull over minority drivers if they seemed "out of place," he said, although many other officers said they were concerned about appearances of racial profiling.
Racial profiling has become a major issue in recent years as minority groups have highlighted what they see as police harassment on the roadways. The sarcastic phrase "driving while black," a supposed rationale for many traffic stops, has entered the national vocabulary.
Cop: 'What does it mean?'
Several police departments are studying the ethnicity of citizens who are pulled over in traffic stops. A Detroit study released by the Michigan State Police in July found that black motorists stopped by police in the city were far more likely to be searched than their white counterparts.
Ronald Davis, an Oakland police captain and a regional vice president of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives, told audience members at the conference that studies of racial profiling must be designed carefully. Davis' group is trying to bring attention to racial bias in police work.
"Everybody is collecting the data, but nobody is sitting back and saying 'What does it mean?'" Davis said. "Someone needs to be in the forefront."
In October, internal documents revealed that the leadership of the New Jersey state troopers long knew that officers were targeting minorities. In a three-month period in 1994, 94 percent of drivers pulled over in one region were minorities.
In San Diego, a study during the first six months of this year found that Hispanics made up half of all drivers who were searched or whose cars were searched in traffic stops. An estimated 20 percent of the city's residents of driving age are Hispanic.
The study also found that blacks accounted for 12 percent of those pulled over, even though they make up an estimated 8 percent of the city's residents of driving age.
Police in San Diego are analyzing the results.
The San Diego Police Department requires its officers to fill out small cards that describe the racial characteristics of people pulled over.
San Jose, California's third-largest city and the center of Silicon Valley, also began tracking its traffic stops last year, Capt. Rob Davis said at the conference. Instead of filling out forms, police officials decided to eliminate extra paperwork and instructed officers to pass information about suspects to dispatchers through special radio codes, he said.
"We thought the number of traffic stops would go down because officers would be resistant" to the extra work required by the radio codes, Rob Davis said. "But it went up."
From July to September, 26,000 traffic stops were made in San Jose, a city of 925,000. Thirty-four percent of the drivers were white, 39 percent Hispanic, 15 percent Asian, 7 percent black, and 6 percent were of other races.
According to estimates, the residents of the city are 43 percent white, 31 percent Hispanic, 21 percent Asian, 4.5 percent black and 0.5 percent of other races.
"At first glance it may look like we have racial profiling," he said, because it appears that blacks and Hispanics were being targeted more than whites.
But the fact is that San Jose police officers spend more time in some minority neighborhoods due to higher crime rates, meaning that officers are more likely to pull over people who live there, Rob Davis said.
Police statistics reliable?
An audience member at the conference questioned whether departments could rely on statistics that police officers reported themselves. Rob Davis responded that sergeants patrol the streets and keep an eye on their officers.
While Oakland's Ronald Davis supports racial profiling studies, he said the results are prone to a number of problems.
Police departments that have studied racial profiling have used different methods, making it difficult to compare the results, he said. Also, outside organizations should study the statistics instead of police department employees who may not be qualified to do so.
Finally, he said, police agencies should be careful to not rely on studies as a way to catch bad cops. "You're probably a day late, anyway."
Instead, police supervisors should trust their instincts, which will generally tell them which of their officers are disasters waiting to happen, he said. "Nothing can replace good supervision and leadership."
(iSyndicate; APBnews.com; Nov. 15, 2000). Terms and Conditions: Copyright(c) 2000 LEXIS-NEXIS, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights Reserved.