Laws Mandating Data Collection Reveal Discrimination


Community members protest discriminatory police stops outside LAPD headquarters in October. (Al Seib/Los Angeles Times)

New reports released under laws requiring law enforcement and corrections officials to collect data on police stops and the use of solitary confinement reveal troubling racial disparities in two states.

Racial Profiling in California Police Stops

In California, the state Department of Justice analyzed data about vehicle and pedestrian stops that was collected as part of the Racial and Identity Profiling Act of 2015. The Los Angeles Times reports that this is the third annual report released under the law, but it’s the first to include data about police stops.

The data covers stops of 1.8 million people by the state’s eight largest law enforcement agencies over a six-month period from July 2018 through December 2018. Every law enforcement agency in California will be required to collect and report profiling data by 2023.

The report found that 15% of all stops involved Black people, who comprise about 6% of the state population, while white and Latino drivers were stopped at rates generally proportional to their share of the population. Police were most likely to stop Black men they thought were between 25 and 34 years old.

Eva Bitran, a staff attorney with the ACLU of Southern California, told the Los Angeles Times that the disparities are more pronounced when the data for the California Highway Patrol—which doesn’t do much community-based policing—are removed. For example, the Los Angeles Police Department reported nearly 337,000 stops. About 28% involved Black motorists, although only 9% of the city’s population is Black. About 18% of LAPD stops involved white drivers, who make up about 28% of the city’s population.

Police searched Black drivers at a rate nearly three times that of white motorists, the report found. Overall, about 10% of drivers were searched after a stop, but only 6% of white drivers were searched. Nearly 19% of Black drivers were searched—the highest rate of any racial group.

The report also analyzed “search yield” data, which can reveal bias if it shows that police search a certain group more often than others but find less contraband. It found that officers were most likely to find contraband when searching white drivers, while searches of people of color found contraband at lower rates.

“The report is just the beginning of information that will allow even greater transparency for law enforcement and our communities,” Kings County Sheriff Dave Robinson, a member of the statewide board overseeing the data collection, told the Times.

Higher Rates of Solitary Confinement for Black and Native American People in Minnesota Prisons

In Minnesota, the Department of Corrections reported data to lawmakers about the use of solitary confinement in the state’s prisons for the first time under a 2019 law designed to make the practice more transparent. The data showed that Black and Native American people were sentenced to solitary confinement at disproportionately higher rates than white people, the Star Tribune reports.

In fiscal year 2019, prison officials sentenced 5,800 incarcerated people (about 60% of the total prison population) to solitary confinement, mostly as punishment. The report found that 45% of admissions to isolation were for Black people, 13% Native American, and 40% white. By comparison, 40% of the prison population at mid-year 2019 were Black, 9% Native American, and 51% white.

The bipartisan legislation passed last year reflects growing concern about the use of solitary confinement, which can cause or worsen mental health problems and make it harder for a person to transition back into society, the Star Tribune reports. In 2015, Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy criticized the widespread use of solitary confinement and detailed “[t]he human toll wrought by extended terms of isolation,” including madness and suicide, anxiety, panic, withdrawal, hallucinations, and self-mutilation. “Research still confirms what this Court suggested over a century ago: Years on end of near-total isolation exacts a terrible price.”

A United Nations investigation concluded in 2011 that keeping a person in isolation for more than 15 days can amount to torture. But the data reveals that 2,753 sentences to solitary in Minnesota prisons lasted 16 days or longer. And while the new law requires the commissioner of corrections to review solitary sentences longer than four months, the report found that 69 people were kept in isolation for more than six months and 20 people spent over a year in solitary.

“There are things in the report that I have concerns about,” the new commissioner of corrections, Paul Schnell, told the Star Tribune. “We still have some people who are in segregation for a long time.”

He plans to investigate whether racial profiling or a deeper systematic problem may be driving the racial disparities. “I think we have an obligation to look at those things,” he said.

In addition to racial disparities, Sue Abderholden, executive director of the Minnesota chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, told the Star Tribune the data raises concerns about the use of solitary confinement to punish young people, whose brain development can be impaired by isolation. The brain is still developing up to age 26, she said, but the report found prison officials issued 530 solitary sentences to people who were 17 to 20 years old, and about 2,400 to people 21 to 26 years old. About 80% of people admitted to solitary were 21 to 35 years old.

The data reveal ongoing problems in the use of solitary confinement, Ms. Abderholden said, but the report itself is a positive step. “You can’t fix what you don’t measure,” she said. “I’m really glad they put this out there, and clearly it’s something they’re going to have to work on.”