Racial Profiling — Who knew?

Racial Profiling
A police stop during Black Biking Week in South Carolina


Sandra Bland died in custody after failing to signal a turn.  Walter Scott was shot in the back by a police officer after a routine traffic stop for a broken taillight. Samuel DuBose lost his life over a missing front license plate.


Maybe you thought racial profiling in police stops was only for New York City and a handful of southern states.  But maybe it’s in your town—how would you know?


Data – the analysis and curating of data – is transforming government work. Not just policy monitoring and evaluation, but also policy-making.


An example is Vision Zero.  In San Francisco, the Vision Zero initiative used data on the cost and severity of traffic crashes—especially fatal crashes—along with the estimated cost of remediating the crash site so as to prevent the crash or reduce the chances of fatality. This information was then used to determine which intersection remediation work would be most cost-effective — and that’s how they prioritize their intervention. That’s a really cool use of data: to direct public resources to where they can have the biggest health impact at the lowest cost.


Public health has been using data for decades – in fact, public health has been one area of government that has particularly good at doing data-driven government work. But most of our data is focused on the individual. More should be focused on the context.


Public health is great at taking a particular disease or risk factor—HIV, say, or smoking—and intervening to reduce or mitigate it. But we know that these conditions and risk factors are really just symptoms of a social environment in which risky behavior is bound to arise. Our data should follow our insights. Let’s start tracking those aspects of the social and political environment that are important to the context of population health.


A good place to start is with California’s AB 953: a bill passed by the California Legislature that would require local law enforcement agencies to keep core data on police stops: in effect getting at the reasons and the races.


Why is this a public health issue? A huge number of police stops are for infractions that don’t promote public safety in any meaningful way: broken taillight, failure to signal a turn, riding a bike at night without a light; or that aren’t even in accord with the law, (e.g., riding a bike during the day without a light). But these investigatory stops—basically a fishing expedition for the police—do result in a deeply harmful context for health: they provide an opportunity for people to be late to work, to increase their stress and even to sustain injuries and occasionally death.  For far too many people, the main impediments to health—to outdoor physical activity, social connections, and financial stability—is policing.


In cities around the country, most of what these investigatory stops seem to be picking up are the offense of driving while Black, or even worse, biking while Black.


The point here is not to let policing off the hook by calling out a few bad apples among the cops.  Let’s assume that most cops are doing the best they can under trying circumstances, and figure out how the context of policing can be refined to better promote public safety and reduce the menace of a poisoned atmosphere.


Public health that is truly about the context of health and not just individual behavior should be very concerned by these stops.


AB 453 will provide us needed data that does not now currently exist to do important social epidemiology on the health context. Governor Brown has not said whether he’ll sign the bill. The public health community would hope he does.

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