KXAN investigation prompts audit of APD citations, race data

Investigations

Following a KXAN investigation showing Texas Department of Public Safety troopers incorrectly documenting minority drivers as “white” in traffic stops, KXAN also uncovered the same problem in the Austin Police Department. Because of what we found, APD Chief of Police Art Acevedo is ordering a review of the city’s entire traffic citation system.

By law, police officers are required to determine and document a person’s race to the best of their ability so traffic stop data can be used to monitor whether law enforcement is racially profiling. The law is very clear, race and ethnicity are treated the same.

The fear of racial profiling is very real for many in Austin, including Daniel Llanes.

“When somebody looks at my name, you know, Llanes and I mean you look at me…and I am a Chicano,” Llanes said. Llanes, who lives in east Austin, believes officers pulled him over last year because he is Hispanic.

The longtime Austin activist complained about his most recent stop to the city’s Human Rights Commission while discussing training and policies on racial profiling in January. “Within five minutes, there were eight police officers surrounding me,” LLanes told Commission members. “I can tell you I lived in west Austin for 22 years and that never, never, never happened,” he continued.

On his ticket for expired registration and inspection, police recorded his race.  But Llanes never noticed what race until we showed him a copy of his ticket.

“Does that say white?” asked LLanes. “What can I tell you? It’s insidious,” he told KXAN Investigator Brian Collister. And it was not the first time.  In 2012, an Austin police officer also marked him down as white. “That’s amazing. I guess I must be white,” LLanes said, laughing.

During that same Human Rights Commission meeting, the head of APD’s training academy, Commander Andy Michael addressed how officers are trained. “We profoundly reject the practice of biased based profiling,” Michael said. “Which is actually why we very accurately document every stop and every contact with the public,” he continued.

But KXAN uncovered case after case of Austin police officers recording minority drivers incorrectly as “white.” We analyzed data showing more than 632,000 Austin traffic violation records over the last five years.

The investigation identified and verified minority drivers, including Hispanics, Asians, and African-Americans, recorded in APD’s own racial profiling data as “white.” People like Monique Wheatle, Ebony Sterns, and Monique Verse-who are all African-American-and Eric Pham, who is Asian.

Darren Chung has a dark complexion and comes from a diverse racial back-ground.

“My Dad’s half-Chinese, half-Indian. My Mom’s half-Indian, half-black. So I’m half-Indian, quarter black, quarter Chinese,” explained Chung.

Chung got a ticket for running a red light earlier this year. The officer recorded him as white. “It’s just surprising,” said Chung, as we showed him the ticket. “I’m not white. So it’s just a surprise.”

Chief Acevedo is required by law to deliver an annual report on his department’s racial profiling data to the city council. The report is based on what officers write down at each traffic stop.

“The expectation is that our people honestly fill out the documentation,” Acevedo told Collister.

KXAN showed Acevedo examples of inaccurate race reporting in his department’s traffic tickets. He agreed many of them were obviously wrong.

“Sometimes your officers just get it wrong. Why is that?” Collister asked Acevedo.

The police chief replied: “Well, I don’t know. I can’t answer that.”

What concerned Acevedo the most, he said, is a list KXAN’s investigation produced showing thousands of drivers with Hispanic names listed by his officers as white.

“That’s problematic and it gives me some thoughts and questions. Why we are having that many that are coming out being counted as white? That is a problem.” The problem raises questions for Acevedo who said he has to look at it as a policy issue. “Is it a training issue? Or is it a data input issue? Or is it people not doing the right thing?”

KXAN shared the findings with Texas State University Professor Scott Bowman, who teaches a course on racial profiling.

“If the data is incorrect, or is being implemented incorrectly, then essentially it is not good,” Bowman said. “I mean, there is no kind of value to it.”

Bowman said he does not know whether officers are deliberately skewing the data possibly to protect their jobs, but that could be a reason for recording the wrong race.

KXAN checked to see whether officer evaluations include an evaluation of the documentation of race during traffic stops. APD said the evaluations do not include that data.

“I believe that the majority of our people are accurately and honestly reporting data,” Acevedo said. “Having said that, I am not naive enough to think that there aren’t people that are lazy, not caring, or just being plain misleading or intentionally putting down inaccurate information.”

Because of our investigation, Acevedo says he’s already hired a nationally known expert in racial profiling to conduct an audit of the department’s data.

We’ll follow up with the results as soon as they are available.

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