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Spokane Police to Adopt Formal Ban on Racial Profiling

July 01, 2001  | 

By Mike Roarke - Staff writer

From Spokane Spokesman-Review

SPOKANE, Wash. -- The Spokane Police Department will adopt a policy Monday that for the first time formally bans officers from practicing racial profiling.

The regulation has been shaped by top police officials and members of local minority communities through a series of low-key meetings in the past year. One participant from the NAACP, Florence Brassier, called the measure "unprecedented" because so much outside influence went into crafting an internal police guideline.

Police brass and leaders of the African American and Hispanic communities hope the step will help improve relations, which have been damaged at times by mistrust and fear. It's a shared belief among many black citizens that Spokane officers have engaged in racial profiling -- the practice of stopping or detaining citizens based only on ethnicity -- for years without repercussions.

Another meeting to discuss the issue with police is planned for 7 p.m. on July 26 at the East Central Community Center.

As the policy takes effect, police have pledged to collect detailed information about whom they stop on the streets and why. Although the time line is vague and may depend on funding, the data is expected to be independently analyzed by university researchers to see if racial profiling happens in Spokane.

"Without trust we are nothing," Police Chief Roger Bragdon said at a June meeting at the Calvary Baptist Church downtown. "We are a bunch of people with guns."

Mayor John Powers voiced support for the move, calling it fundamental for a healthy community. "I think the most important thing is this shows racial profiling will not be tolerated in Spokane," said the Rev. Lonnie Mitchell, who took part in the discussions.

The Washington State Patrol is now required by the state Legislature to gather facts about whom troopers pull over on highways to see whether racial profiling occurs. Early indications have hinted at problems, with data showing minority drivers are more likely to be searched than whites.

The Spokane County Sheriff's Office implemented a policy against racial profiling last spring. Sheriff Mark Sterk said deputies have not been collecting data, because of possible action in the Legislature that could spell out exactly how it should be done. No bills were passed in the last session.

About five law enforcement agencies in Washington state have started collecting data or plan to.

Cliff Walter, president of the Spokane Police Guild, which represents line officers, said the new policy isn't likely to hinder officers' work. Both Walter and Bragdon had concerns that some officers might take a lax approach to policing minority areas, fearful of racial profiling accusations.

"We have a very aggressive police department, and I want it that way," Bragdon said. Added Walter: "I think that some officers found it offensive that we were going to have a new policy. Not because they are racist, but because they are not."

The department already has 11 ethical standards that deal with bias-policing, but none that specifically mentioned racial profiling. Bragdon said he wants to avoid what he sees as pitfalls in other departments' racial profiling reviews, like taking the percentage of traffic tickets issued to blacks and comparing that to population totals.

Instead, Bragdon plans to take a more detailed approach with the help of Washington State University researcher Michael J. Gaffney. "It's not fair to the officers or the community to do the simple math," Bragdon said.

In addition to data analysis, the police racial profiling policy also provides for more officer training and outlines a complaint process. "There's still a lot of work to be done," Bragdon said. "It's going to take a long time before we're where people are not afraid to come to the department and make a complaint."

No Spokane police officer has ever been investigated for racial profiling, Bragdon said. Yet some members of minority communities have shared their experiences, saying racial profiling happens to them. And others feel that coming forward could make them targets of police retaliation.

City Council members Steve Corker and Roberta Greene both said they think the policy is a good step toward stronger relations between police and minorities.

"We need to be able to assure the community that the work of the police is above board and beyond reproach," Greene said.

But Corker said: "This is a problem that's not going to be solved by a piece of paper. The bottom line is what's in the mind of the officer. There's not a form that's going to gauge that."

Staff writer Jonathan Brunt contributed to this report. Mike Roarke can be reached at (509) 459-5442 or by e-mail at [email protected]

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