The Long Silence

How did county police officials respond to a damaging report on racial profiling? They didn't

Five years ago the issue of "racial profiling" was at the height of a furious national debate. The American Civil Liberties Union was waging a nationwide campaign to expose and ban the practice of police targeting minorities, African Americans in particular, for traffic stops or arrest based solely on their race. The controversy was so intense that vice presidential candidates Dick Cheney and Joseph Lieberman were pressured to comment on the topic during their debates. Locally, Miami-Dade County Commissioner Barbara Carey-Shuler held town-hall meetings at which residents loudly complained about being pulled over repeatedly for nothing more than "driving while black."

Those concerns prompted Carey-Shuler to propose that an independent study be conducted to determine the extent of the problem at the Miami-Dade Police Department. Her commission colleagues were receptive, and in October 2000 they voted to spend $375,000 to hire the Alpert Group, a prestigious law-enforcement-accountability research firm. The Alpert Group then spent much of the next four years collecting and analyzing data. This past November it submitted its final report to the Miami-Dade Police Department.

But police director Robert Parker and assistant director J.D. Patterson, the department's liaison with the Alpert Group, have not released the study. Not a word -- not even to the advisory board the county commission appointed to "directly participate in all aspects of the study."

Miami-Dade Police Director Robert Parker will have to answer some 
tough questions, including whether he tried to suppress bad news
The Miami Herald
Miami-Dade Police Director Robert Parker will have to answer some tough questions, including whether he tried to suppress bad news

When I heard the report was completed but not released, I called Geoffrey Alpert, head of the Alpert Group and chairman of the department of criminology and criminal justice at the University of South Carolina. "We submitted that report," he said. "We've been ready to release it [publicly] for some time."

Armed with that confirmation, I sent a public-records request to the Miami-Dade Police Department, and was told the report was not ready to be released.

Confused, I called Alpert again. "We submitted the report in November. That's the release date that will be stamped on it," he affirmed. "I'm under contract and I really feel uncomfortable answering any more questions."

So I called Patterson directly. He didn't return my message. Back to the public-information office. "We did receive the report in November," Sgt. Vanessa Cook advised. "In our efforts to comply with the guidelines, there are certain protocols that have to be followed. We have to make a full presentation. We have to be placed on an agenda at the county commission where the chairperson, the board of county commissioners, and the advisory board are all present."

Is the department doing that? I asked. "Apparently so, they're trying to coordinate that," Cook added.

Not according to the advisory board members with whom I spoke.

I asked board member Eduardo Diaz, executive director of the county's Independent Review Panel, if police had coordinated anything with him recently. "No," he answered.

Ditto the NAACP. "I haven't been contacted by anybody regarding that board or about that report," said Adora Obi Nweze, former president of the Miami-Dade chapter of the NAACP and now the organization's state president.

Same for the ACLU. "This is outrageous. They've been scheduling that meeting since last year," fumed Rosalind Matos, the organization's representative on the advisory board. "They scheduled a meeting for November and that was canceled. They scheduled a meeting in December and that was canceled."

It sure didn't sound as if Parker or Patterson or anyone else at the county police department was trying very hard to organize a presentation any time soon.

Eventually I did find a source familiar with the report's contents, and what I learned went a long way toward explaining why the department would be in no rush to release the document. It contains good news and bad. The good news is that after exhaustive study, researchers found no discernible pattern of racial profiling regarding traffic stops. The bad news? That begins after a driver is pulled over.

Originally the study was going to examine only the data concerning an officer's decision to make a traffic stop. But Maria Rivas, the ACLU's previous representative on the advisory board, insisted that the study also look at what happens after a traffic stop is made.

"When that data was analyzed, there was apparent disparity in treatment based upon race," my source says. Police were far more likely to ticket black drivers, search their cars, or run computer checks on their license plates. The researchers, however, couldn't discern why this was happening. Maybe there was some statistically legitimate reason. Maybe black drivers simply had more outstanding warrants, for instance, obligating police officers to arrest more black drivers after stopping them.

But when Geoffrey Alpert and his team requested more data from the police department to explore this issue, they reportedly were told to terminate the study. "[The police department] didn't want to give them any more data," says my source.

If that's true, it would violate the terms of the county's contract with the Alpert Group. The police were not allowed to control the research or its parameters; only the county commission had that authority, largely through its advisory board. But after providing initial input, the advisory board was kept in the dark, according to Florida ACLU's executive director Howard Simon. "One of the commitments was that the advisory board would see a draft copy of the report," he said. "I think they have violated the agreement and done an end run around the community."

This study was exhaustively researched. All Miami-Dade officers in patrol cars were issued "contact" forms they had to fill out after every traffic stop, indicating the driver's race, the reason for the stop, and more. Those forms were turned over to the researchers. In addition University of Miami student volunteers rode with many officers and provided observer reports on what occurred when an officer pulled over a car. The researchers also identified major intersections in predominately black, Hispanic, and white neighborhoods throughout the county and looked at crash and ticket data from those locations, comparing them to the contact forms and census data.

That front end of the report showed no pattern of racial profiling. I'm told all elements dovetailed: The observational data compared to the traffic/crash data compared to the contact forms -- all showed there was no emphasis on pulling over black drivers. In fact the observational data indicated it was nearly impossible to ascertain a motorist's race while driving behind a car.

But the report did show anomalous and disturbing treatment of black drivers once a stop had been made.

County Mayor Carlos Alvarez was the police director when the study began, but he resigned to run for office before it was completed and says through a spokeswoman that he does not know the contents. The current police director, Robert Parker, who is black, does know its contents. Interestingly he was head of the department's patrol division during the years the research was conducted. No doubt he's dreading the report's release and the questions he'll have to answer.

Here's the suspicious part: In anticipation of receiving the final report, police officials announced they were prepared to present it to the county commission. But after the Alpert Group actually submitted it in November, complete with the post-traffic-stop data, the cops canceled the show. Recalls Eduardo Diaz: "They contacted me in October and announced a November release date in front of the county commission. Then they rescinded that date. I remember being disappointed. I very much want to see the report."

The ACLU is so frustrated by the apparent stonewalling that last week the organization's Rosalind Matos sent a letter of complaint to Carey-Shuler. "The last Racial Profiling Advisory Board meeting was on June 18, 2003, almost two years ago," Matos wrote. "Since that day the Advisory Board has been kept uninformed about the status of the report and about new developments. In an email dated August 11, 2004, Dr. Alpert indicated that his group was ready to make a presentation to the [Advisory] Board and County Commission and that MDPD was in the process of setting up the next racial profiling advisory board meeting. This anticipated meeting has been cancelled at least two times and has not been rescheduled."

Department spokeswoman Linda O'Brien insists police brass have not delayed the release of the report because of its contents. "That's absolutely untrue," she says, adding the department hopes to make its presentation in May. Better late than never. Too much money and interest were invested in the study for people to forget. If anything, the long silence has only heightened concern and fueled suspicions -- suspicions police director Robert Parker must now confront.

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