Copy/paste won’t lead to needed reforms on police profiling, traffic stops

If you thought Groundhog Day was in February, you might be surprised to hear it is actually in April in Louisville. Amidst the community outrage over a viral video of a Louisville Metro Police Department (LMPD) traffic stop involving a young black teenager, Tae-Ahn Lea, who allegedly made a wide turn while driving and ended up being frisked and put in handcuffs while his car was searched extensively, LMPD released their annual Vehicle Stops Report. I had no idea the report had been released until a reporter called me for comment on it.

When I sat down to read the report, it all seemed so familiar I logged on to LMPD’s website to see if the reporter had sent me last year’s version by mistake. He hadn’t; the link was for this year’s report. I pulled up the previous year’s report and sure enough, the Introduction was exactly the same. “Do police officers engage in racial profiling? This is the million-dollar question being asked…by researchers, police administrators, court officials, citizen groups, and individual citizens across the county.” The report goes on, “While the term racial profiling is relatively new, concern over racial bias in decision-making by police is not…”

So I pulled up the 2014 report and found, “Do police officers engage in racial profiling? This is the million-dollar question being asked…” I closed it and pulled up the 2013 report and you’ll be shocked to learn the first line reads, “Do police officers engage in racial profiling? This is the million-dollar question being asked…” I know you weren’t shocked. That was sarcasm. And can we all agree that the term “racial profiling” wasn’t relatively new in 2013 and certainly is definitely not relatively new in 2019?

I stopped pulling up old reports, but after that short exercise I learned that for at least the last several years the University of Louisville researchers that have prepared this report for LMPD have simply copy and pasted much of the document, filling in the Findings, Charts, and Tables with the new traffic stops data that was collected in the year of the study. That may not seem like a big deal, but in addition to the Introduction being the same year-to-year, the report’s conclusion has also remained nearly the same from year-to-year, namely, “…analysis of the data cannot confirm nor eliminate a finding of biased policing within [LMPD]…” The report’s recommendations have also remained identical across several years. The only updates I can detect are in the examples of actions taken by LMPD to “implement broad-based approach to biased policing,” like mandatory biased policing training (effective 2015) and training on the principles of community policing (effective 2016).

Don’t get me wrong, I applaud LMPD for continuing to collect data to be analyzed, their transparency in releasing the report to the public (that hasn’t always been the case), and the addition of new training for officers. These were necessary steps. The problem is that we still have black people, who live in West Louisville in particular, who are being stopped and searched as a consequence of going about their daily lives. More has to be done. I’ll even suggest one avenue – a deeper dive into LMPD traffic stops, with researchers supplementing their data collection with an analysis of the body-worn camera footage LMPD officers are capturing during their interactions with the public. This might start to finally answer the “million-dollar question.”

Ultimately, if the community wants LMPD to take different approaches in their traffic stops, maybe a good start is demanding they use something other than a largely copy/pasted report as their roadmap to change.

Amber Duke is Communications Director at the ACLU of Kentucky.