City of Tacoma will start tracking, analyzing race data for traffic stops by police

City of Tacoma will start tracking, analyzing race data for traffic stops by police
Downtown Tacoma, as seen from the Thea Foss waterway

TACOMA, Wash. — The city of Tacoma will start collecting race data to help identify racial disparities in traffic stops and calls for service.

Tacoma City Council approved a resolution this week directing City Manager Elizabeth Pauli to work with the Tacoma Police Department to collect data on traffic stops as part of its citywide anti-racist transformation effort.

“National studies and local data indicate that police interactions have disparate outcomes that impact Black community members in particular,” Tacoma Deputy Mayor Keith Blocker, who sponsored the resolution, said at Tuesday’s study session.

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The resolution includes results of a study of over 100 million traffic stops published this May in peer‐reviewed journal “Nature Human Behaviour” that found Black drivers were “20 percent more likely to be stopped than white drivers relative to their share of the residential population” and concluding that “police stops and search decisions suffer from persistent racial bias and point to the value of policy interventions to mitigate these disparities.”

Council member Chris Beale said there needs to be a better way to collect data in Tacoma. After reading an article about traffic stops and disparate impacts on the Black community over the summer, he shared the information with the city.

“The information we got back was, ‘Well we don’t really track the data on traffic stops — we don’t have a clue. We don’t have any of that information — no one checks a box when somebody gets pulled over to know if this is a disproportionate impact or not,’” Beale said at the City Council meeting this week. “And that seemed to be a really big problem.”

Officers do record race when writing a ticket, said Tacoma Police Department spokesperson Wendy Haddow, but sometimes officers write “unknown” because they don’t want to assume someone’s race. After the information is recorded, it goes to municipal court, and the only way to examine it is through a public records request.

“We fully support the resolution and look forward to working with the City Manager to formulate future data collection so we better understand how we serve our community and where we can improve,” said Tacoma Police Chief Don Ramsdell in an email.

The resolution passed Tuesday was altered a bit from its original form, which Blocker brought forward to Council at a study session on Nov. 3.

The original proposed resolution not only directed the city manager to collect the racial data, but to also de-prioritize certain traffic stops, including failure to stop at a stop sign, failure to yield at a yield sign, improper placement of license plates, not using a blinker or not wearing a seat belt — in other words, officers would be encouraged not to pull over a resident solely for those reasons.

“My goal is to prevent unnecessary interactions with community members that could lead to negative consequences,” Blocker said on. Nov. 3. “So I believe something like this could make not only community members feel safer but officers feel safer.”

At the meeting, some Council members suggested collecting more data first, referencing the work being done by 21st Century Policing Solutions, a consulting firm based in Chicago that aims to help communities and organizations address public safety challenges. The city is paying the firm around $250,000 to review police department practices. An initial report is expected to be completed by the end of the month.

The resolution passed Tuesday focused on beginning data collection and also directed the city manager to provide the collected data to the Community Police Advisory Committee, the public body that reviews use of force data and provides recommendations on Tacoma Police Department policy.

City Council has been under pressure to immediately address racial disparities in policing.

A Nov. 10 joint news release from the Tacoma Democratic Socialists of America, Lawyers Against Systemic Racism and former Pierce County Sheriff’s candidate Janice Bridges urged City Council to defund the police and “don’t delay.”

“Tacoma doesn’t need more plans, committees, commissions, and alignments,” it states. “We need action.”

Mayor Victoria Woodards amended the resolution on Tuesday to include a timeline that would have the city collecting the data by the end of first quarter 2021.