Software looks for racial profiling in Cedar Rapids police work

Cedar Rapids police officer Antoine Smith looks down a side street as he patrols the central district Friday, Feb. 4, 2011, in southeast Cedar Rapids, Iowa. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
Cedar Rapids police officer Antoine Smith looks down a side street as he patrols the central district Friday, Feb. 4, 2011, in southeast Cedar Rapids, Iowa. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

CEDAR RAPIDS — Police Chief Greg Graham wants to protect Cedar Rapids’ minority population from racial profiling. He also wants to protect members of the city’s mostly white police force from bogus allegations of racism.

He hopes a new computer system can do both.

The Police Department plans to begin tracking the race and gender of people stopped by police to determine whether racial profiling occurs. The data could be analyzed once a year, for the department as a whole and for individual officers.

“You can see if you have an officer who is picking on a specific race or gender,” Graham said.

Blacks made up about 30 percent of Cedar Rapids’ violent and property crime arrests in 2009 and 2010.

This is disproportionate to the city’s black population, which is 6.3 percent of the whole, according to 2010 census figures. The Cedar Rapids arrest demographics are right on par with national figures reported as part of the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report, however.

Whether blacks commit a greater share of crimes in Cedar Rapids or are unfairly arrested because of their skin color is difficult to quantify and open to contrasting opinions.

“I believe that people of color are arrested more often for things that other folks do not get arrested for in this city,” said Dedric Doolin, president of the Cedar Rapids branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

Graham, whose department has had no formal complaints of racial profiling in the past two years, disagrees.

“The people who have to be arrested, we don’t determine their race,” he said. “You can look at poverty rates, education levels, social issues; all that can factor into how people get arrested.”

That’s why Graham wants statistics. He can get them from a computer tracking system similar to one used by the Ocala (Fla.) Police Department, where Graham served as deputy chief before coming to Cedar Rapids in June 2008.

Ocala’s Biased Based Profiling report looks at whether officers are targeting people by race or gender.

“We want to be able to track who we’re stopping and why,” said Sgt. Chas Maier, public information officer for Ocala.

Ocala’s 2009 report included an analysis of race and gender data from traffic stops and officer-initiated field interview reports. The data are compared to census figures showing the racial and gender breakdown for Ocala to see if any officer, or the department as a whole, is stopping one race or gender disproportionately.

The report listed 11 Ocala officers who had more than half of their 2009 contacts with blacks. The report documents each officer’s beat and how their contacts compare with the rest of the department.

“The statistical data on each of the named officers should not lead one to believe they are conducting any biased based profiling,” the report states. “However, it is recommended that their immediate supervisors monitor their (field interview reports) and traffic for a period of time to determine if they are conducting biased based profiling.”

Doolin said he likes the idea of tracking race and gender of Cedar Rapids police stops. The state NAACP worked with the Iowa State Patrol on a similar study a few years ago, he said.

Doolin also applauds Graham’s attempts to recruit more minority officers.

There are four black officers on the city’s 203-officer force. Graham would need nine more to mirror the population.

Cedar Rapids isn’t alone. The Iowa City Police Department and the Iowa State Patrol, for example, also fail to match their communities’ racial mix.

Cedar Rapids recruiters have gone to metropolitan areas in Minnesota, Illinois, Nebraska and Missouri to reach a greater number of qualified candidates, Graham said.

His team succeeded in 2009 when they hired Antoine Smith, a black Minnesotan fresh out of community college.

Recruiters liked Smith so well, they met with him a half-dozen times, talked with his family and friends, and offered him the job in June 2009. All starting officers that year were paid $44,800.

“With our recruiting teams, we try to identify them by age, gender, race, where they came from. If we do a recruiting trip to Florida, clearly we want to send people who come from Florida or who have strong ties to Florida,” Graham said. “It would be the same thing if we were recruiting athletes for a football team.”

Smith said he hasn’t experienced prejudice from Cedar Rapids residents. He also doesn’t believe race matters when it comes to police work.

“As far as I’m concerned, the law is the law. It’s black and white. It’s the same for everybody,” he said.The race and gender tracking system could be implemented later this year as part of scheduled computer upgrades, Graham said.

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