Tracking traffic stop data, ‘bias indicators’ for officers lauded by criminal justice reform groups, but questioned by law enforcement unions
In 2003, Nevada lawmakers headed into session with their hands on a troubling new data analysis — Black and Hispanic drivers in Nevada were statistically more likely to be pulled over for traffic stops than white motorists.
The report — which analyzed nearly 400,000 traffic stops statewide — resulted in legislation from then-state Sen. Dina Titus (D-Las Vegas) to require police to attend racial sensitivity training and continue collecting data on traffic stops as an attempt to stem any ongoing racial bias issue in traffic stops.
That legislation was opposed by police groups and ultimately failed to advance out of committee. But nearly two decades later, the issue hasn’t gone away.
Many of the same arguments from 2003 reappeared on Wednesday during a Senate Judiciary committee hearing on SB236, a bill introduced by Sen. Dallas Harris (D-Las Vegas) that would re-start data collection and analysis on traffic stops, and require police departments to implement a system of tracking “bias indicators” for individual officers.
Harris referenced the 2003 study in her testimony on the bill, saying it was important for lawmakers to follow up on the now-decades old report and take action if racial disparities in traffic stops still exist.
“It's imperative that the Legislature take another look at this in an aggregate sense and get some statistical analysis done on whether these biases exist in traffic stops or not, so that we can actually address if there's a problem, and if there is, figure out the best way to solve it,” she said.
SB236 has two primary functions. The first would require every law enforcement agency in the state to establish an early warning system for finding police officers who display “bias indicators” — including having a large number of citizen complaints, being involved in a large number of use of force incidents, making a large number of arrests for resisting an officer or arrests that don’t result in filed charges or having a “negative attitude” toward programs aimed at boosting community and police relations, according to the bill text.
If an officer is tagged for displaying bias indicators, SB236 would require the police agency to increase supervision of the officer and offer additional training or counseling. If that officer is “repeatedly identified” by the system, the agency “shall consider the consequences that should be imposed,” including transfers or discipline.
Harris compared the system to a Doppler weather radar, saying that like the weather forecast, bias indicators may not be an exact prediction, but can prepare law enforcement for the potential of a “catastrophic event.”
“We want to help leaders identify potential problems and to intervene so that these problems do not become catastrophic,” she said.
The second part of the bill would require the state’s Department of Public Safety to begin developing a standardized method for use by all police agencies in the state as to how to record traffic stop information, including the race, age, and gender of the person stopped and any police action taken — such as a warning, citation or search.
It would require that information be transmitted annually to the state starting in 2023, and “to the extent that money is available,” contract with a third party to conduct a statistical analysis of the data for the purpose of “identifying patterns or practices of profiling.”
The original version of the bill would have required police officers to have at least an associate’s degree or two years of military service, and would have placed limits on qualified immunity — a legal provision protecting law enforcement from civil lawsuits unless officials “clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.” Both of those provisions were removed under a conceptual amendment submitted by Harris ahead of the hearing.
Sen. Ira Hansen (R-Sparks) questioned how the bias indicator tracking system envisioned in the bill would work, saying that most examples of illegal driving came from young males regardless of racial background.
“When cops are pulling people over, and we're seeing that disproportionality among races and in gender, did anyone ever consider that it might be the fact that those people are the ones that are committing a disproportionate share of the crimes?” he said.
Harris pointed back to the 2001 survey, saying that the disparity between Black drivers and traffic stops had a strong statistical basis.
“Yes, we've considered it, and I do not believe there is any evidence that African Americans are more likely to speed in the same manner that there is evidence that males are more likely to speed, hence the higher insurance rate for males,” she said.
The bill was supported by a wide range of criminal justice reform advocates, from the ACLU of Nevada to libertarian-leaning Americans for Prosperity. Many shared stories of past examples of police violence; the niece of Byron Williams, a Black man killed in police custody in Las Vegas after saying “I can’t breathe” two dozen times, testified in favor of the bill.
“There's nothing radical nor unreasonable in this bill,” Mass Liberation Project lead organizer Leslie Turner said. “This is actually the bare minimum, data collection and transparency.”
The bill even attracted support from some police unions.
“It will require further dialogue with the law enforcement agencies to develop those policies,” Executive Director of the Nevada Association of Public Safety Officers Rick McCann said. “You know, dialogue is not a bad thing. We need more of it, quite frankly. Statistical analysis is not a bad thing.”
But the Las Vegas Police Protective Association — the union representing Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department rank and file officers and the largest police union in the state — testified in opposition to the bill, saying many of the measure’s supporters were from anti-police groups that supported the abolition of police unions.
LVPPA representative John Abel said the union hadn’t been in contact with Harris about the bill, and could potentially be in support of the legislation if it was shown that officers did not have any “newly added paperwork or documentation” for the measure. He suggested that other support from other police unions, such as NAPSO, wasn’t reflective of how most police in the state felt about the issue.
“These two groups should denounce this legislation as I know their members probably aren't supportive of their union,” he said.
Metro police lobbyist Chuck Callaway said the agency was opposed to the bill, but was working with Harris on amendments that move the state’s largest police force to the neutral position. Metro filed a fiscal note estimating an annual $22 million cost to implement the bill, but Harris said the agency would be able to use existing data collection systems and not require them to find new software.
Still, Callaway bristled at some of the comments made by bill supporters.
“In regards to some of the testimony that was made during the hearing, I kind of take a bit of offense to the term ‘police violence,’” he said. “Police officers are out doing a very difficult job on a daily basis, and they react to the actions of suspects and people that they encounter on calls and on stops during the course of their duties.”
Sen. Melanie Schieble (D-Las Vegas) said she understood why law enforcement may have an emotional response to suggestions of implicit bias — saying that she had in the past been accused of “pretty much racism” in online and real-world spheres, an experience she called “emotional and jarring.”
But she said the purpose of SB236 was not punitive, and in fact represented one of the lightest approaches possible to deal with implicit bias.
“You're not calling people out on Twitter, you're not putting them on the record in a court of law, you're not posting a list in their front lobby,” Scheible said. “You are privately talking to one officer with actual data to say ‘Hey, we noticed that over the last six months, these 10 things happened...and you might not know this, but that's not normal. I can't think of a lighter touch for an officer than that one on one conversation.”