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Traffic stop data on radar

In six weeks, the state will begin tracking whether police officers are targeting racial minorities disproportionately in traffic stops. The folks required to collect the data: the police officers stopping the vehicles. The new mandate will take ...

In six weeks, the state will begin tracking whether police officers are targeting racial minorities disproportionately in traffic stops.

The folks required to collect the data: the police officers stopping the vehicles.

The new mandate will take effect Jan. 1 and will require officers to note the race of the driver and all passengers in vehicles they stop.

Most Chippewa Valley law enforcement agencies contacted by the Leader-Telegram indicated the additional information collection won't be a significant burden because it automatically will be forwarded to the state through a data system called Badger Tracs that is widely used in the laptops many officers have in their squad cars.

While local police chiefs expressed confidence that racial profiling is not a problem in their departments, they harbored some concern about whether the data would be interpreted fairly.

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Still, Christopher Ahmuty, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin, said it's important for the state to collect the data to identify potential problems.

"We don't want to use a broad brush to paint all police departments as offenders, but there is

no doubt there is a problem in the state," said Ahmuty, who served on an advisory committee that assisted the state Office of Justice Assistance in developing the new policy. "It happens all across the country."

Two gubernatorial task forces looking at racial profiling in the past decade have recommended collecting racial data from traffic stops.

Eau Claire police Chief Jerry Matysik said collecting the data is worthwhile if it helps administrators identify any potential issues or troubling trends.

"The way I'm looking at it is we have absolutely nothing to hide," Matysik said. "Our goal as a department is to police in a fair and impartial way and to develop trust with the community, and that includes those residents in racial minorities."

Data concerns

Eau Claire County Sheriff Ron Cramer and Osseo Assistant Police Chief Bryan Lee noted that stops on Interstate 94 would skew traffic stop data away from reflecting the high percentage of white residents in their jurisdictions.

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That disparity is unlikely to be the result of biased policing, the officials said, with Cramer noting that many I-94 stops are initiated from an airplane.

"I don't know how you'd tell what color a person's skin is at 3 in the morning when they're moving 80 mph on the interstate from 1,800 feet away," Lee said.

Matysik also pointed out that socioeconomic factors, which potentially could be misinterpreted as racial influence, play a role in traffic stop statistics because of the condition of vehicles and policing emphasis in higher-crime neighborhoods.

Chippewa Falls police Chief Wendy Stelter said one unintended consequence of the new rule could be the elimination of verbal warnings for minor violations, as officers likely will feel compelled to "create some kind of paper" at every traffic stop.

Stelter and other area police officials suggested area communities tend to be small enough that the public likely would report cases of biased policing carried out by a rogue officer.

Altoona Public Safety Director Todd Chaney said racial profiling is the kind of activity that police administrators need to be on the lookout for.

The Eau Claire Police Department conducts regular training to ensure officers are policing in a fair and impartial manner.

"We're all human and all humans have biases and we need to acknowledge those things and make sure they don't play a part in our enforcement decisions," Matysik said. "But I believe in my heart that our police officers are less biased than the general public because we screen for bias in hiring and when taking in a new officer we do a very extensive background investigation and specifically ask about bias in past behavior."

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Yet Ahmuty said there have been enough reports of Wisconsin racial profiling, including a phenomenon called "race out of place" in which minorities are pulled over at a disproportionate rate in some upscale Milwaukee suburbs, that collecting the data is important, especially if it helps eradicate such behavior.

"If you're spending your time pulling people over because you don't like the way they look, that's just not good use of police resources," Ahmuty said. "It's unfair to honest motorists who are being stopped for no other reason than their skin color or accent."

Missing technology

For those agencies that don't have laptops in their cruisers and don't use Badger Tracs, the new requirement could put additional stress on strained budgets.

In Chippewa County, for example, Sheriff's Department Capt. Eugene Gutsch said the traffic stop rule will be a "labor-intensive, paperwork-chasing new mandate" that will take deputies away from other duties.

And because the County Board has rejected the department's requests for squad car laptops, deputies or other personnel will have to enter the data by hand

"In Chippewa County, we don't have the ability and funds to purchase the computers to get on to the electronic program that's been put in place to deal with this project," Gutsch said. "We're stuck in the Stone Age."

The Augusta Police Department also doesn't use Badger Tracs, but Chief Michael Mosley didn't sound too worried about extra paperwork because the small agency doesn't issue near the number of citations as larger departments in the region.

The Eau Claire County Sheriff's Department is just implementing the Badger Tracs system and plans to have it up and running just in time for the launch of the new traffic stop data collection law, Cramer said.

Still, the department's 15 unmarked cars make some traffic stops but aren't equipped with laptops. Operators of those vehicles, including the sheriff himself, will have to fill out necessary paperwork by hand.

Copyright (c) 2010, The Leader-Telegram, Eau Claire, Wis./Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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