Access to standardized data has been a barrier to racial profiling studies in Iowa. So, we’re glad to see the Iowa Senate Judiciary Committee taking a stab at the problem.
In 2014, for instance, Iowa City Council members heard the findings of a local police department traffic study, conducted by Christopher Barnum of St. Ambrose University and covering 2005-2007 and 2010-2012 interactions with law enforcement.
That study revealed that although minority drivers comprised about 10 percent of motorists during the study periods, rate of contact increased from about 14 percent to 19 percent. Once stopped, those drivers were 2.8 times more likely to be arrested.
Officers were 3.45 times more likely to request to search minority drivers, although contraband was more likely to be discovered in vehicles operated by nonminority drivers.
Even so, Barnum, a scholar of sociology and criminal justice and a former police officer, has warned against equating findings of disproportionate contact with underlying bias and racial profiling. There can be legitimate reasons, unrelated to bias, for disproportionality, and accurate analysis is a complex undertaking.
For that reason, Iowa City officials continued to work with Barnum, training law enforcement officers to provide even more detailed data on traffic stops. Once a wider lens is in place, government officials will have a clearer picture than numbers alone can provide.
Iowa Senate Study Bill 1177, advanced by a judiciary subcommittee this week, takes aim at this data issue on a larger scale. It would standardize collection and reporting of police stop data from all state and local departments, require additional law enforcement training and create a statewide community policing advisory board for oversight.
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We support these additions to the justice department as another layer of accountability and better transparency. But we also caution against Legislature-prescribed data collection lists that have not garnered the support of law enforcement. Perspectives from the men and women who routinely conduct traffic stops must be taken into account. In addition, consultation with researchers and statisticians is necessary to produce meaningful data-sets.
All Iowans have a vested interest in eliminating racial profiling. Consistent and efficient data collection is the first step. Bring law enforcement to the table and advance the bill.
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