Pa. State Police resume tracking racial data during traffic stops in response to Spotlight PA report

The data is critical to detecting potential racial profiling, but the agency had quietly stopped collecting it in 2012.

(Dan Gleiter/PennLive)

(Dan Gleiter/PennLive)

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The Pennsylvania State Police announced Tuesday that it had resumed collecting racial data during traffic stops, nine years after the department quietly ended the practice and in direct response to a previous investigative report by Spotlight PA.

Many police departments across the nation collect racial data from traffic stops in order to detect potential racial bias in policing. In 2019, Spotlight PA revealed the State Police had ended its collection program in 2012 with no official announcement and for reasons that remain unclear.

In response to the findings, the statewide law enforcement agency pledged to resume the practice.

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“Troopers take an oath to enforce the law ‘without any consideration of class, color, creed or condition,’ and this data collection effort is one way to show the public we are upholding that oath,” State Police Commissioner Col. Robert Evanchick said Tuesday in a news release. “Regular and ongoing analysis by a neutral third party is a critical part of this program that emphasizes our department’s commitment to transparency and continuous improvement.”

Kenneth Huston, president of the Pennsylvania chapter of the NAACP, said the department’s announcement was an encouraging development, especially given that accusations of racial profiling have dogged the department in recent years.

“We respect law enforcement — whether it’s local, or state, or federal — but, with the Pennsylvania State Police, there seems to be this narrative that they are racial profiling,” Huston said.

In the summer of 2019, the ACLU of Pennsylvania filed a federal lawsuit against the State Police alleging troopers were violating the law by stopping and holding people solely because they were Latinx. In 2017, the department paid $150,000 to settle a lawsuit brought by a Latino man who alleged he was profiled by troopers and arrested on false charges.

As part of its new collection campaign, which officially began Jan. 1, the State Police has partnered with the University of Cincinnati to analyze its data. The department formerly partnered with the university under its previous collection program.

Huston added it was noteworthy that the agency had teamed up again with the University of Cincinnati to analyze its data, adding further credibility to its efforts, but said it was important for the department make its raw data publicly available so it can be analyzed by advocacy groups, journalists, and other researchers.

“It’s the raw data that we would like to see,” Huston said. “From the NAACP’s perspective, we would like to see the raw data and come to our own conclusions.”

A Spotlight PA review of the studies produced by the University of Cincinnati under its former work with State Police revealed a nuanced — and sometimes conflicting — portrait of the department’s interactions with people of color between 2002 to 2012.

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Those analyses found no consistent evidence that troopers stopped drivers, issued citations, or made arrests based on race.

However, they revealed a persistent problem after stops had occurred: Year after year, the researchers found troopers were roughly two to three times more likely to search black or Hispanic drivers than white drivers. At the same time, they concluded, troopers were far less likely to find contraband on black and Hispanic drivers compared to white drivers.

In the final years of data analysis, researchers recommended the State Police conduct a more detailed review to determine which stations had the greatest racial disparities in search rates and then interview the commanders there to better understand why those disparities might exist. In response to questions from Spotlight PA last year, State Police officials said they didn’t know what, if anything, was done in response to those recommendations.

In 2012, the State Police ended its collection and analysis program. Agency officials said they have no record of why the department’s leadership team at the time made that decision. A Spotlight PA survey at the time found the State Police was one of only 11 statewide law enforcement agencies in the U.S. — and by far the largest — that did not collect race data during stops.

Under its new program, the State Police said Tuesday that troopers are collecting more than 30 fields of data related to each traffic stop, including the age, gender, race, and ethnicity of drivers and passengers. Troopers will also record the duration of the stop, whether a vehicle search was conducted and, if applicable, the results of that search.

In a statement, Evanchick said the new program would benefit from advances in technology over the past decade. Under the former program, troopers completed reports by hand, which was a cumbersome and time-intensive process.

Under the new program, collection has been digitally streamlined in order to minimize the impact on the duration of traffic stops.

“We look forward to learning from the data and analysis by the University of Cincinnati,” Evanchick said.

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