Is racial profiling an individual problem, the product of a few racist cops who act against the mandate of the Seattle Police Department? Or is it institutional, an unwritten policy of pulling over drivers in poor, minority neighborhoods for minor—or nonexistent—infractions?
Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels seems to think it's the former. Three weeks after rejecting the Seattle City Council's plan to collect and analyze detailed driver information from every traffic stop, Nickels rolled out a plan that emphasizes individual conduct over departmental policy. It promises to increase officer accountability for misconduct, collect more data on traffic stops, and create an ongoing dialogue over race relations through community meetings and polling. But critics say the plan is too vague, won't do enough to address wider patterns of bias in the department, and relies on wishful thinking about funds that may or may not materialize.
Assuming the mayor's plan is fully funded—still a big if—the city will install digital video cameras in every one of its 224 police cars. Unlike the council's plan, which would have required officers to fill out a 17-item questionnaire after each traffic stop, the mayor's plan will require officers to fill out a handwritten form that will include documentation—in writing—of why a motorist was pulled over and by whom. People who have complaints can take them to the Office of Professional Accountability (OPA), where the video records can be reviewed to determine if an officer had a legitimate claim—or whether a driver was a victim of racist policing.
The People's Coalition for Justice, a direct-action group that works for police accountability, says Nickels' plan doesn't go far enough. They believe the OPA, an internal police investigation unit whose decisions can be vetoed by the police chief, doesn't provide real accountability. And by requiring officers to submit handwritten information, rather than the Scantron forms called for in the council's plan, the mayor's plan makes data collection and analysis far more difficult, activists say.
One day after the plan was released, a dozen coalition members delivered half a cake to the mayor, along with a giant card that read: "Half a cake for half a plan."
"When the mayor puts in an independent civilian review board," said one coalition member, "we'll be back with the other half of the cake."
But is the first half even warranted? According to the mayor, installing digital cameras in all the city's police cars will cost somewhere between $1.4 million and $1.8 million. The city is lobbying the federal government for funds, but legislation that's currently in the Senate will only provide $1 million. Where's the rest of the money going to come from? "I suspect that will come out of our hide," says Deputy Police Chief John Diaz, referring to the police department budget. The mayor's plan makes no mention of cuts to pay for the likely shortfall.
That's not the only thing wrong with Nickels' plan, says George Allen, aide to City Council member (and Police Committee chair) Jim Compton. Apart from the video cameras, Nickels set aside just $200,000 to pay for the rest of his plan: holding quarterly community meetings, conducting an extensive neighborhood poll, paying professional social scientists to observe police, and analyzing data from as many as 140,000 handwritten tickets a year. "That's a very low figure," says Allen. Allen speculates that it would be nearly impossible for the mayor's $200,000 to cover the cost of adequate data analysis. And without real data collection, the city won't even know exactly how many people of color are being pulled over by police, let alone what to do about it.
Even the meager funds that Nickels has allotted to data collection aren't a certainty. If the federal funds are not made available [for cameras in all 224 police cars], at least 25 cars will be equipped this year, according to the Nickels plan. Paying for 25 cameras would slice the funding for all the other Nickels programs in half, to a mere $100,000. What then? "Then," Nickels said, "we've got more work to do." firstname.lastname@example.org