The state mandate for police to collect race and gender data could lead to a downturn in some officer activity.
Local police leaders expressed that and other concerns about House Bill 2355, which requires police to document race and gender during traffic stops “to identify patterns or practices of profiling.” The law kicked into effect this summer but the state is giving more time for smaller departments to sort out how to gather, store and submit data.
Hermiston Police Chief Jason Edmiston said his department has to start by July 1, but will roll out the program in April so officers have time to learn the system. He said he anticipates at least one side effect.
“I think we’re going to see a very slight dip in officer initiated activity and a slight dip in traffic stops,” Edmiston said.
That could lead to police missing bigger crimes. Police catching unlawful activity during stops “happens all the time,” Edmiston said, but bogging down a cop in the field with extra work is likely to lead to backlash to avoid that work. The chief said that’s just part of human nature.
The bigger problem, police said, stems from gathering the data. Officers have to provide the reason for the stop and their perceptions at the moment.
“Just because you perceive somebody to be a male or female, doesn’t mean they are male or female,” Edmiston said. “And when you perceive race, I think you are on a slippery slope.”
Boardman Police Chief Rick Stokoe expressed a similar concern.
“I don’t want our officers to guess,” he said. “That’s not what our job is. We’re to go out and look for crime.”
Boardman police and most other agencies in Umatilla and Morrow counties rely on the same police records management system, Sun Ridge Inc., which is creating software to help agencies gather the data. Stokoe said Boardman police will start in as soon as the software clicks.
Pendleton Police Chief Stuart Roberts said habitual offenders raise another red flag. Pendleton has some drivers who are members of minorities and who receive multiple traffic citations a week.
“That totally taints your statistical information,” he said.
And while the state has promised to contact agencies when blips arise, Roberts said he found that hard to believe given the 180 or so agencies in Oregon.
Data collection is nothing new for police. Oregon law requires agencies to report crime data, which Oregon State Police sift through and compile each year into reports of several hundred pages to show everything from the number of murders in Oregon to officer assaults. According to state police, the Oregon Annual Uniform Crime Reports have an error rate of approximately 1 percent.
Yet the 2017 report, the most recent for a full year, shows gaps in the 162 agencies it lists. The Harney County Sheriff’s Office and University of Oregon Police Department were among 17 agencies that did not submit up to six months of data in time for the 2017 report, and 25 agencies, often small and rural, submitted no data, including the sheriff’s offices of Grant, Gilliam, Sherman and Wallowa counties.
Pendleton police did not submit 11 months of data for the 2017 report. Roberts explained there were hang-ups in trying to ensure the data’s error rate did not exceed the 4 percent standard. The department finally provided the statistics for 2017 in late November.
Roberts said the race and gender data could run into similar issues. About 60 percent of agencies in Oregon have 10 or fewer people, he said, and those smaller departments often do not have a records manager to check the accuracy of the information, creating room for error-ridden data.
Pendleton police does not have to start gathering the data until July 1, 2021, but Roberts said the department, like Boardman, will go with it as soon as the software allows. But he has doubts about what it all could lead to.
“If they find some bad actors out there, more power to them,” Roberts said. “But I think they will find with all the amounts of data out there, they aren’t going to know one way or another.”
Even he, like the other chiefs, said their departments will do what the Legislature requires.