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Study slams troubled Oakland police department for racial bias

June 15, 2016 at 6:40 PM EST
The Oakland police department’s history of misconduct — particularly involving African-Americans — has made it the subject of federal oversight for 13 years. Wednesday, Stanford researchers released the results of a two-year-long study into the department, confirming that Oakland officers exhibit significant racial biases in their day-to-day work. Special correspondent Jackie Judd reports.
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Editor’s Note: The day our story aired, Paul Figueroa was appointed Interim Police Chief of the Oakland Police Department. Two days later, Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf said Figueroa asked to step down, was taking a leave-of-absence, and would return to work at the rank of captain, by his own choice. In the wake of new charges against some officers sharing racist text message, Schaaf has placed the entire police department under the control of the city administrator.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The police department in Oakland, California, has a long and troubled history. The most recent scandal to roil the department involves alleged sexual misconduct by officers.

Police chief Sean Whent resigned last week for reportedly mishandling that situation. And there are decades of tension and mistrust between officers and the African-American community.

Stanford University has been studying that often volatile relationship, and the results of its groundbreaking study were released today.

Special correspondent Jackie Judd has our exclusive report.

JACKIE JUDD: The report confirms what African-American residents of Oakland, California, have long known, seen and felt. Police often treat them very differently than white residents.

REBECCA HETEY, Stanford University: We found a significant pattern of racial disparities in who was stopped, in who was handcuffed, in who was searched, and in who was arrested.

JACKIE JUDD: Rebecca Hetey is a Stanford University researcher and an author of the report.

REBECCA HETEY: More importantly, these disparities remained significant after we took into account a wide range of factors that we would expect to influence police decision-making, like crime rate, like neighborhood demographics.

REV. MICHAEL MCBRIDE, Operation Ceasefire: It is an insult. And no one can make me believe that this would be happening in any other community, except for a community that is defined by black, brown and poor people.

JACKIE JUDD: Activists and brothers Michael and Ben McBride are longtime critics of the Oakland Police Department.

REV. BEN MCBRIDE, Operation Ceasefire: We have a broken relationship because, while there have been some steps moving forward to try to repair it, there still has not been the kind of honest discourse that needs to happen around truth and reconciliation.

JACKIE JUDD: According to the most recent FBI statistics, Oakland has more violent crime than any other U.S. city except for Detroit and Memphis. It was in this supercharged atmosphere that city officials took an unprecedented step. They decided to have outsiders analyze their officers’ behavior, knowing the results wouldn’t be pretty.

Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf:

MAYOR LIBBY SCHAAF, Oakland: It is incredibly important that we ask these hard questions, so that we can get to the bottom of making the department something that the community trusts and that is, in fact, bringing justice.

WOMAN: So, this when I just broke down the entire stops into both race and gender.

JACKIE JUDD: Researchers at nearby Stanford University spent two years analyzing vast amounts of data, field reports from 28,000 stops officers made on the streets and roads during a 13-month period, and body-cam video from 2,000 of those encounters. They expected to find about 7,800 stops of African-Americans. In fact, there were more than double, almost 17,000 stops.

What surprised everyone involved even more was the huge gap in handcuffing.

REBECCA HETEY: Even when we took out stops that resulted in arrests, we found that one in four black men, for example, were handcuffed, compared to one in 15 white men.

JACKIE JUDD: Analysis of the body-cam video also found disparities. Lead researcher Jennifer Eberhardt says, while no racial slurs were uttered, certain words were used far more frequently when an officer questioned an African-American.

JENNIFER EBERHARDT, Stanford University: We started by just looking at linguistic patterns in that footage. And we found, for black stops, words that are associated with probation, parole, arrest, jail time, those kinds of things…

JACKIE JUDD: So, there was an assumption that the black person who had been stopped had a criminal record?

JENNIFER EBERHARDT: There was a possibility of that. In our discussions with community members, there was a lot of concern that there are ways in which they’re stopped where there’s a suspicion of criminality.

So, implicit bias can influence us unintentionally.

JACKIE JUDD: Eberhardt is a national expert on implicit, or unconscious, bias, and she trains Oakland officers to understand what that means.

Her cautiously worded report suggests implicit bias may be behind the racial disparities in police stops, along with the police believing this is the norm, this is what their superiors want them to do. The phrase racial profiling, which suggests overt racism, is never used.

Why is racial profiling such a radioactive phrase?

SEAN WHENT, Former Chief, Oakland Police Department: I think that race is a very sensitive issue.

JACKIE JUDD: Former police Chief Sean Whent, who resigned last week for reasons unrelated to the Stanford report.

SEAN WHENT: Racial profiling, in and of itself, obviously is prohibited by our policy. I mean, it would be a misconduct issue. The fact that people are impacted by implicit bias, that’s a different issue.

JACKIE JUDD: So you are not willing to say that these findings would lead you to a conclusion that there is racial profiling in Oakland?

SEAN WHENT: I don’t know how I could credibly say that, no, no racial profiling is ever — ever occurs here, although what I don’t believe necessarily is that these findings show that there’s systemic racial profiling going on. I just think it’s much more complex than that.

REV. MICHAEL MCBRIDE: I don’t care if it’s implicit or explicit. I want bias gone. I want it managed, and I want people held accountable. And the people have the right to be able to live in a community where bias is not overdetermining their lives.

JACKIE JUDD: The report is only the latest in a string of critical evaluations since the department came under federal oversight in 2003 because of police misconduct.

At the time, the department agreed to adopt dozens of reforms within a five-year period — 13 years and millions dollars later, the federal government is still monitoring the Oakland Police Department.

City officials believe the department is approaching the day when that oversight will end. And there has been some progress recently. Use of excessive force, the number of arbitrary searches and citizen complaints have all declined. And so has the crime rate itself.

Sergeant William Febel explains that different tactics are now used in high-crime areas.

SGT. WILLIAM FEBEL, Oakland Police Department: So, we use intelligence-based policing. When we talk to folks in the area, we like to particularly speak with community members. Community members help us identify the subjects who out there who are involved in criminal activity.

JACKIE JUDD: The Stanford report includes dozens of recommendations, including more data collection, sustained training, annual review of each officer’s stop data, and regular community feedback on police interactions.

Police departments around the country, including those caught up in controversial police shootings like this one in Chicago, are watching what Oakland does now and how the local community responds.

Paul Figueroa leads Oakland’s reform efforts.

PAUL FIGUEROA, Interim Chief, Oakland Police Department: We’re at a position in reform, not only locally, but nationally, that we’re finally getting to the point where we have the data, where we can take some real action.

LIBBY SCHAAF: I believe that, at the end of my term, people will be able to say that this city really grappled honestly with some very difficult issues, like race, like oppression, like class differences.

REV. MICHAEL MCBRIDE: Every mayor that we have been in relationship with, the last three mayors, have all told us that: We’re working as fast as we can, we’re close, we’re close.

And then they go out of office, and then we have to hear the exact same rhetoric from the sitting mayor.

JENNIFER EBERHARDT: I think, on all sides, people want this relationship to work right. I think African-Americans especially don’t want to feel fearful of the police, of the people who are supposed to protect them. And I think the police officers don’t want to feel like targeted. They don’t want to feel like perpetrators of bias.

JACKIE JUDD: At this roll call, new recruits join veteran officers as they prepare for their first shift of a very tough job. With this revealing report in hand, commanders will expect them to carry out more even-handed policing. And a wary community will be watching.

For the “PBS NewsHour” this is Jackie Judd in Oakland, California.

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