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Statistics show higher arrest rate for local African American drivers, but questions persist

Targeting or happenstance?


Chief Pete Carey's force might be biased, Rachel Stovall says. - FILE PHOTO
  • File photo
  • Chief Pete Carey's force might be biased, Rachel Stovall says.

Black motorists in Colorado Springs are cited for traffic violations at a rate disproportionate to the local African-American population.

In fact, blacks received nearly twice the percentage of tickets in a five-year period as their percentage representation in the local population. But whether that indicates discrimination is debatable.

One statistics expert views the data as consistent with racial bias, while civil rights advocates stop short of alleging discrimination but acknowledge the numbers are troubling and deserve a deeper analysis.

Rachel Stovall, a longtime Springs resident and businesswoman active in minority organizations, feels the message is clear.

"For people who are not in the community of color, these biases are easy to take for granted," Stovall says. "That's why the awareness is important — not to blame anyone but to consider, 'Am I automatically tagging these people as the criminal or inferior or uneducated?'"

Data obtained by the Independent show:

• From 2011 through 2015, blacks were issued 11.25 percent of the city's traffic citations — or 25,865 of the 229,972 total issued. The percentages varied from a low of 10.9 percent in 2011 to a high of 11.9 percent in 2014. That's nearly twice the 6.3 percent of the Colorado Springs population who are African-American, according to the 2010 Census.

• Hispanics saw no such lopsided treatment. While Hispanics represent about 16.1 percent of the population, those receiving tickets and warnings from 2011 through 2015 comprised 12.4 percent of all citations and warnings, or a total of 28,490 tickets. The range over the five-year period varied from a low of 11.7 percent in 2013 to a high of 13.6 percent in 2011.

• The Colorado Springs Police Department has failed to hire African-American officers at the same pace as white officers. In 2013, African-Americans made up 4 percent of the department's 648 sworn officers, with 27 officers. In 2015, they numbered 35, or 5 percent of the total of 689, so the department is closing the gap. But the CSPD still hired whites at a higher rate. In 2015, for example, the CSPD hired 36 of the 584 white male applicants, meaning 6.2 percent who applied were hired. Seven of 125 white female applicants were hired, a rate of 5.6 percent. But only five of the 85 black males were hired — or 4.7 percent. None of 52 black female applicants in either 2014 or 2015 were hired.

• Blacks don't fare well on promotions at CSPD, though a high percentage become qualified for advancement. Over the past five years, 2011 to 2015, the department has promoted 71 people, of whom 83.1 percent are white, 12.6 percent Hispanic, 2.8 percent black and 1 person labeled as "other."

Seven of eight black officers who took the promotions test from 2011 through 2013 became eligible for advancement. Of those, zero were promoted, data show. In 2014, one black female was promoted. In 2015, two black males took the promotions test and were declared eligible. One was promoted. The rest, or 94 percent of the 17 officers who advanced in 2015, were white.

It's worth noting that the department's first black commander, Fletcher Howard, didn't make that grade until 2008 after serving for 30 years, and recently left under the cloud of a severance agreement that forced his ouster after 38 years on the force.

All 10 of the other top CSPD officers who rank as commander or higher were promoted to commander in less time than Howard, averaging 22 years on the force before attaining the rank of commander. Deputy Chiefs Vince Niski and Mark Smith were promoted after 22 years and 26 years, respectively. After Howard, Commander Rafael Cintron, who's Hispanic, took the longest to reach command level, at 27 years.

Officials with the Commission on Accreditation of Law Enforcement Agencies, which reviews departments to determine compliance with certain benchmarks, conducted a review of CSPD for accreditation purposes in 2014 and renewed its accreditation.

Regarding the traffic citations, CALEA's report says, "An examination of the citation data indicates that citizens are issued citations in approximately the same demographics as the community. This is a positive reflection on the philosophy and practices of the agency."

Since the CALEA review, the percentage of tickets issued to black people in 2014 and 2015 increased to 11.5 percent.

CALEA executive director Craig Hartley says the agency's goal isn't to measure whether statistical outcomes exactly match up with demographics, but rather to assess whether departments collect data relevant to certain standards and then try to achieve them.

"We don't try to make an evaluation about whether that issue is in keeping with scientific statistical data," Hartley says in an interview. "They collect data and then we look at how they adjust their policies to be sure they're achieving the objective of the standard."

What's important, Hartley notes, is that the CSPD is subjecting itself to a CALEA assessment.

"The accreditation process encourages agencies to do audits and documentation of issues," he says. "You want that accountability in your organization. It creates a level of accountability for the community, a demonstration to the public they're trying to do that."

Regarding promotions, the CALEA report notes that during the 2011-2013 period, "The promotions made reflect positive trends in diversity as non-white male personnel account for 25 percent to 36 percent of those promoted."

Except those percentages aren't correct. Based on data cited in CALEA's own report, the percentages ranged from 12.5 percent to 23 percent during that period, and all of the nine non-whites who were promoted were Hispanic.

Hartley insisted that CALEA's numbers were correct and noted the purpose of a CALEA review is self-analysis. "The point is to look inward and assess performance," he says.

Statistics actually show Hispanics' citations at a lower percentage than the population. - NO CREDIT
  • No credit
  • Statistics actually show Hispanics' citations at a lower percentage than the population.

All the data on traffic tickets, hiring and promotions should serve as a red flag to the department's management that more analysis is needed to determine if racial bias is at work within the force, experts say.

David Mullin, a member of the economics faculty at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, sees the traffic citation data as "consistent with racial discrimination against blacks" but notes that further analysis is warranted, including a look at the prevalence of black drivers compared to white drivers, to refine the findings.

Mark Silverstein, ACLU of Colorado executive director, agrees that deeper study is needed.

"A statistician could offer a lot of reasons why those statistics by themselves don't show what the economist says," Silverstein says. "The population pool isn't necessarily the driving pool, for example. But there certainly are ways in which the department could take those statistics and control for numerous variables and evaluate if an African-American man is more likely to receive a citation than a similarly situated Caucasian."

And the department should do so, he adds, "especially when we know of specific, concrete incidents that strongly suggest that race was a factor in officers handling encounters with citizens." Silverstein's example is Ryan and Benjamin Brown, who were stopped by CSPD for no apparent reason in March 2015 and pulled from their vehicle when they asked why they had been stopped.

"I'm convinced if the young people had been white," Silverstein says, "it wouldn't have gone down in that way." Yet, the department ruled the stop justified, legal and proper.

Silverstein also notes that analyses of police actions by race in other cities have led departments to identify racial profiling and step up training to reduce the practice.

Profiling is a tricky thing, because it's not always related to racism per se, he notes, but is also a product of "unconscious and implicit bias that can affect the way police officers are doing their jobs."

He gets no argument on that point from Stovall. Reacting to the traffic citation data, Stovall says, "We've been this way for a long time, and it's not just traffic tickets." Research on a national level has shown African-Americans are over-represented in criminal prosecutions as well, she says, adding, "It may be time for our department to look at these things in a way they've never looked at them before, because the numbers are troubling."

Chief Pete Carey's force might be biased, Rachel Stovall says. - COURTESY RACHEL STOVALL
  • Courtesy Rachel Stovall
  • Chief Pete Carey's force might be biased, Rachel Stovall says.

Stovall stresses that as a board member for Colorado Springs Teen Court, she's "highly supportive" of police.

Stovall noted Police Chief Pete Carey and El Paso County Sheriff Bill Elder take racial discrimination seriously, because they sought training last year from Capt. Ron Johnson of the Missouri State Highway Patrol, who was assigned to defuse the situation following the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in August 2014, which launched a furor over racist policing nationwide.

Johnson also spoke at the local NAACP's gala last fall.

But Carey canceled his own appearance at the May 21 community meeting, "A Conversation on Race," organized by the black community, without explanation, Stovall says.

The CSPD responded to the Indy's written questions by disputing that a conclusion of discrimination could be reached based on the traffic citation demographic data. Rather, other factors could cause disparity, including driving quality and location.

The department also noted that men drive more than women and tend to violate traffic laws more than women, so men are stopped by police more frequently than women, but that doesn't point to gender bias.

"It should be noted that the Colorado Springs Police Department has entered into a collaborative relationship with the Center for Policing Equity, which is run through the University of California, Los Angeles," CSPD said. "This relationship will allow the Center for Policing Equity to examine our practices to ensure that we maintain the high professional standards that are expected of our officers."

Regarding promotions, the department said data from 2011 through 2015 showing percentages of those who tested against percentages of those promoted in each ethnic class show no discrimination. It said that 27 percent of the white officers who tested were promoted; 22 percent of African Americans who were tested were promoted; 33 percent of Hispanics, and 14 percent of "other." But that analysis did not measure one ethnicity against the other, as did the CALEA data.

It's worth noting the Indy isn't aware of any sustained racial discrimination lawsuits in recent years against CSPD. One reason might be that what looks and feels like discrimination to some doesn't meet the legal test. For example, one such lawsuit filed in January 2015 died on May 23 with a ruling in the city's favor.

Sgt. Larry Morgan, who's black and a 30-year CSPD officer, sued the city in federal court alleging he was penalized because he's black and then punished for complaining about it. His allegations:

While working special events, he was called to Acacia Park during Pride Fest in 2012 where he issued a summons to James Sorensen for openly carrying a firearm. Later, the department discovered that open carry is legal in the city and the case was dismissed. The city also paid Sorensen $23,500 to settle a wrongful arrest lawsuit.

Morgan was suspended one day without pay and was involuntarily transferred to patrol for a time. No other officers were suspended, but two white officers received written reprimands, according to court documents.

Then, in May 2013 during Territory Days, Morgan told a political petition circulator he couldn't gather signatures at the event, in accordance with policy. The man filed a complaint against Morgan, and a commander removed Morgan from special-events detail on May 29 for 62 days.

Meantime, a white sergeant removed a person from Territory Days in 2013 for open carry but wasn't disciplined or reassigned until after Morgan filed his discrimination complaint on June 7, alleging he was being treated differently than the white officer, who received milder punishment on July 10.

Last week, Senior District Judge Richard Matsch sided with the city, noting that Morgan ordered Sorensen at Pride Fest to put his hands in the air, saying, "You're about to get the shit kicked out of you." That and other comments were captured on video.

Morgan himself accepted a complaint from Sorensen against him, and then checked a box indicating there was no policy violation. An internal affairs investigation led to Morgan's suspension, while the other sergeants were reprimanded. Morgan was the supervisor on duty.

Matsch also noted the petitioner at Territory Days alleged Morgan "displayed an inappropriate attitude," but the white sergeant involved in the Territory Days open-carry incident was not discourteous; the white officer was barred from special events for seven days.

Matsch ruled that the white officer "is not similarly situated" to Morgan, because he didn't accept a complaint in which he was the named officer and he didn't have two complaints in one year. "Because plaintiff has not shown disparate treatment among similarly situated employees, his discrimination claim fails," Matsch wrote.

Likewise, Morgan's complaint of discrimination fails, because the discipline for the Territory Days incident predated his complaint, Matsch concluded.

Morgan's attorney didn't respond to requests for comment.

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