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Advocates press city to make police data on 'stop receipts' public

Advocates press city to make police data on 'stop receipts' public

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The Buffalo Police Department has issued about 150 stop receipts since officers began the new policy in early July, and the city is collecting demographic information on each stop, a spokesman said. 

When asked if the data will be made public, Michael J. DeGeorge – who is also a BPD spokesman – said he "would recommend" that anyone wanting to see the data file a Freedom of Information request.

But a local activist group – the Fair Fines and Fees Coalition – will press the city to make the information available to the public in a database, particularly the demographic information showing the race and other characteristics of the people stopped. The group is drafting a database proposal to present to Mayor Byron W. Brown "soon" and to the Common Council by the time city lawmakers return next month from summer recess, said Jalonda Hill, a paralegal with the Western New York Law Center, who also spearheads the coalition.

The stop receipt policy requires officers to issue written statements for all traffic stops to give people a clearly defined reason why the officer initiated the stop. The receipts explain what the officer observed that prompted him or her to pull someone over. They are used in several other cities and advocates contend they can reduce racial profiling. Data from other cities also indicates they reduce the number of stops police make.

The policy was among the first implemented under the Buffalo Reform Agenda that Brown announced June 9 following protests in Buffalo and elsewhere over police behavior following the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police. 

Brown said in June that the policy would be in place by June 24.

The coalition – which includes everyone from social justice advocates and concerned citizens to researchers and grassroots organizations – proposed stop receipts to the city in a meeting with Brown after hearing from a lot of residents of color saying they felt they were being targeted, Hill said.

"The stop receipts came out of the fact that a lot of traffic stops that happen in Buffalo are (based on) bias, so a lot happen on the East Side and in Black and brown communities," Hill said.

Buffalo's stop receipt program, which can be used to expose bias in traffic stops, is based on a New York City model, Hill said.

When contacted by The Buffalo News, the New York City Police Department would not answer specific questions about its policy. 

But the New York Daily News reported in September 2015 that officers there started issuing "receipts" that month to anyone questioned by police during street stops. 

Since then, the percentage of Blacks who were stopped increased a bit. However, there was a dramatic decrease in the overall number of people – including Blacks – who were stopped. 

The introduction of receipts began when the NYPD faced intense scrutiny for its "stop-and-frisk" tactics, which critics say disproportionately targeted minorities.

According to New York magazine, the form requires police officers to provide their names, badge numbers and a reason for the stop. Explanation options include "concealing or possessing a weapon," "engaging in a drug transaction," "proximity to the scene of a crime," "matches a specific suspect description," "acting as a lookout," "casing a victim or location" and "other."

According to data compiled by the New York Civil Liberties Union, the number of street stops declined from 22,565 in 2015 to 13,459 in 2019. And the number of African Americans who were stopped decreased from 12,223 to 7,981 over the same time period. However, the proportion of African Americans increased, from 54% of those stopped in 2015 to 59% of those stopped in 2019. African Americans make up 24.3% of the city's population, according to Census Bureau estimates.

The Milwaukee Police Department started a similar receipt program last year as a result of a settlement in July 2018 stemming from a class-action lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin against the City of Milwaukee in February 2017. The lawsuit accused the Milwaukee Police Department of targeting tens of thousands of people without reasonable suspicion of criminal activity, which is the legal requirement for a police stop.

In 2019, when the receipt policy was first implemented, the total number of documented police stops went down from 34,687 in the first half of 2019 to 28,036 in the second half.

The ACLU of Wisconsin, which filed the lawsuit, declined to answer questions. But according to Fred Royal, president of the Milwaukee NAACP, the lawsuit showed there was a disparity in how many traffic stops were being conducted on people of color in the city.

"We know there were way too many traffic stops issued to people of color, an excessive amount of stops for African Americans," Royal said. "It was proven ... there was not a justification for a lot of these stops. They were pretextual stops (based on) if the person looked as if they may have been a criminal element."

As part of the 2018 settlement, the Milwaukee Police Department started the Citizens Contact Card policy last year, Royal said. The contact card has the police officer's name, specific reasons for the stop, and on the back, the process is outlined to file a complaint if the person felt his or her rights were violated.

Anytime there is a citizen contact, the police officer is required to record the demographics of the person in a report that is put in a database, Royal said.

"I believe it's a great tool for transparency," said Sgt. Sheronda Grant of the Milwaukee Police Department. 

"We don't do any stops based on race. If we do a traffic stop and write a citation or warning, (demographic information) is stored in our database," she said.

The Crime and Justice Institute, acting as a consultant, released a semiannual audit in February covering Jan. 1 through June 30, 2019. It looked at  randomly selected samples of encounters with police, including traffic stops, field interviews (essentially pedestrian stops) and no-action encounters, which means a cop briefly questions someone but takes no further action and does not obtain the person's name. 

CJI noted that the time frame occurred while the department was beginning to implement many of the initial reforms of the settlement agreement. Therefore,"it is inappropriate to draw strong conclusions," the report said.

According to the February report, of the sampling of 380 people who had encounters with police, 214 (56%) were Black; 62 (16%) were white; and 33 (9%) were Hispanic/Latin. Race/ethnicity information was missing for 60 encounters.

According to Census Bureau estimates, Milwaukee's population of 590,157 is 44.6% white, 38.8% Black and 18.8% Hispanic or Latino. 

CJI's second semiannual report released in June 2020 covered July 1 through Dec. 31, 2019. Of the 379 encounters sampled, 227 (59.9%) were Black; 87 (23.2%) were white; 45 (12.4%) were Hispanic/Latin. Race/ethnicity information was missing for eight encounters.

Royal said the regular auditing of the Milwaukee Police Department will carry a lot of weight over time.

"Someone is actually looking at reasons why people are being stopped and the demographics of people who are being stopped," he said.

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