Police and Community React to San Jose Traffic Stop Data

December 18, 1999 12:00 am

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SAN JOSE, CA – The San Jose Mercury News reported today that local police stop black and Latino drivers at far higher rates than whites and Asian-Americans, according to a long-awaited report on racial profiling released by the police department Friday.

“The community asked for the numbers and we gave them,” San Jose Police Chief William Lansdowne said. “Up until this point, all we had were anecdotes. We can’t be afraid to look at the statistics.”

According to the Mercury News, San Jose police agreed to study the issue earlier this year after a series of highly publicized incidents across the nation drew attention to the issue of “DWB” — or driving while black or brown.

The San Jose Police Department was one of the first in California to voluntarily agree to collect data on traffic stops. Since then, more than 50 police agencies in the state have agreed to do so.

The study found that Latino drivers are stopped more frequently than any other ethnic group in the city and well out of proportion to their share of the population. They account for 31 percent of San Jose’s residents but made up 43 percent of the drivers stopped by police.

The report, which looked at all traffic stops conducted by San Jose police from July 1 to Sept. 30, also found:

* Blacks made up 4.5 percent of the population but 7 percent of the drivers stopped.

* Whites made up 43 percent of the population but 29 percent of all drivers stopped.

* Asian-Americans made up 21 percent of the population and accounted for 16 percent of the stops.

The newspaper reported that Lansdowne shared the report’s findings with local civil rights leaders at a private briefing Wednesday night. Several of them were present at a news conference at police headquarters Friday, and they praised the chief for gathering the data and working with them to address the issue of racial profiling.

Although they tried to strike a conciliatory tone, a number were clearly concerned about the numbers.

“I’m sad to say it is obvious by the way that minorities are being stopped that they are being targeted,” said Victor Garza, chairman of La Raza Roundtable, a San Jose Latino organization.

Garza said he was confident that Lansdowne would work with civil rights groups to improve the department’s performance.

“I know the police chief, he’s a helluva good guy, and I know he wants to correct this,” Garza said. “Now we have a base to work from and correct the inequities.”

Mike Lyons, a member of the Santa Clara County Human Relations Commission, said he is convinced that racial profiling happens. “Why are African-Americans and Hispanics being stopped more?” he asked. “No one can explain that.”

The statistics are missing a crucial piece, one that would more clearly show whether individual groups were being harassed, according to Michelle Alexander, Director of the Racial Justice Project for the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California. Even if two different groups are stopped at the same rate, she said, they might be treated differently during the stops because of their race.

“Without information about who is being frisked and searched, it’s hard to know whether racial profiling is occurring,” Alexander said.

Chief Lansdowne said there is a reasonable explanation for the disparities and no evidence to suggest that San Jose police systematically have been discriminating against minority drivers.

During the press conference, Lansdowne said the traffic-stop statistics made sense given the socio-demographic realities of the city, and the way the department deploys its officers.

The department assigns more officers to the parts of the city that generate the most police calls, he said. And those neighborhoods have higher concentrations of minorities than other police precincts, the report said, although it didn’t provide a district-by-district demographic breakdown.

Lansdowne stressed that the higher rates of crime in those precincts is the result of socioeconomic factors, not the race or ethnicity of the people who live there.

Because more officers are present in those districts, Lansdowne said, more are available to make traffic stops. As a result, black and other minority drivers are pulled over more frequently than whites, who tend to live in districts with fewer reports of crime and fewer police officers assigned.

“The vehicle stops that we make in San Jose are demand-driven,” Lansdowne said. “Where you put the most cars is where you are going to make the most stops.”

Lansdowne stressed that the report was based on just three months’ worth of data, and only represented a preliminary analysis. More meaningful conclusions can be drawn after the department has a year’s worth of statistics to look at.

“We have been asked for this information, and we are producing this information,” he said. “It’s going to take this community, working with the police department, a while to look at the numbers and try to figure out exactly what they mean.”

In its story on the report, the San Francisco Chronicle today described the San Jose Police Department as the first police organization in the nation to voluntarily release the results of its study on traffic stops.

According to the Chronicle, Lansdowne said he launched the program after hearing complaints from minority groups — even from his own African American officers –that police were stopping motorists on the basis solely of their skin color.

“We’re not saying what we’re doing is the final answer,” said Lansdowne, who pledged to discuss the findings with community leaders. “We need more statistics and more time to come up with conclusions.’

“This is a small step in a very long journey,” Lansdowne said.

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