Chief vows to root out profiling by Patrol
Seattle Times staff reporter
The deep distrust some African Americans feel for the State Patrol was palpable at a public forum in Seattle last night, but Chief Ronal Serpas seemed to win some trust by conceding that racial profiling does exist and promising to try to root it out of his 1,076-person force.
Serpas is touring the state carrying a Washington State University (WSU) statistical study of more than 2 million traffic stops, which says that race and ethnicity are not factors in whether troopers stop or ticket motorists.
But the study also found persistent disparities in the rates of vehicle and body searches of whites and ethnic minorities. That echoed an analysis conducted earlier this year by The Seattle Times of 1.7 million traffic stops, which found that blacks, Latinos and Native Americans were 2.5 times more likely to be searched than whites, while whites were more likely to have contraband when searched.
For many of the roughly 50 gathered at Mount Zion Baptist Church — most of them people of color — no amount of statistical evidence could override their own personal experiences of being discriminated against because of race.
"You could be walking while black, eating while black ... going to the bank to get a loan while black. There's racial profiling," said Pearl Richard of Seattle. She went on to illustrate Serpas' difficult task of gaining trust, invoking the name Bull Connor, the notorious police chief of Birmingham, Ala., who used dogs and fire hoses on civil-rights marchers.
She and others at the forum questioned the WSU study, its methods for collecting data and the chief's conclusion that it demonstrated there's no systemic racial profiling by troopers.
Serpas continued to try to win them over, however.
He said the State Patrol needs to do more to recruit officers of color and to promote them. About 12 percent of the State Patrol's commissioned troopers are ethnic and racial minorities, compared with 18 percent of the population at large, according to State Patrol and U.S. Census figures.
For the first time in its history, the agency recently promoted an African-American woman.
Serpas also acknowledged there's racial profiling, even if it's not systematic.
"You can't have 70 percent of (black) people saying there's racial profiling," he said, referring to a follow-up poll on the WSU study, "without there being racial profiling."
Nevertheless, the profiling is not happening systemwide, Serpas said, and he is trying to eliminate it not only because it is unfair to its victims but also because it's bad police work.
"White people carry more dope than anybody," he said.
The agency will continue to collect data, including on individual troopers, to examine progress or lack thereof, he said.
The Rev. Leslie Braxton, of Mount Zion, gave a measured endorsement of the effort.
"I'm encouraged by the information I'm seeing tonight, if you can take it at face value," he said, praising Serpas' outreach effort.
"Our history is still a burden we have to overcome. But it appears we are heading in the right direction," he said.
J. Patrick Coolican: 206-464-3315 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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