New data collection program will test bias in Denver policing

In an effort to better understand and address complaints of biased policing in Denver, officers in the northeast part of the city will begin recording race, gender, clothing, age and 30 other data points any time they stop, arrest or otherwise contact a member of the public.

This program asks officers to fill out contact cards based on their perceptions of the people they’re contacting. The idea is to capture extensive data to learn how cops might act differently based on whom they’re stopping, where and for what reasons to determine whether there is a pattern of biased policing that matches up with residents’ experiences.

The program is a pilot that will begin in mid-July and run for three months in Denver’s police District 2, which includes Elyria Swansea, Cole, Clayton, Park Hill, City Park, Congress Park, Hale and Montclair. District 2 was chosen because it’ll soon be under the command of Cmdr. Ron Thomas, who’s been closely involved in the crafting of the pilot.

As this new program is being rolled out, the New York-based police-behavior research group Center for Policing Equity is separately examining five years of historical data, provided by the police department, on policing and possible bias in Denver. The results of that study, which began about a year ago, aren’t available. Once they are, that study along with takeaways from the upcoming District 2 pilot, will lead to a citywide expansion of the pilot later this year, officials said during a public meeting Tuesday evening at Seventh Day Adventist Church in Park Hill.

That citywide program will have a longer, perhaps indefinite time frame, officials say, and will be focused both on continued data collection and on using that data to inform potential changes in policing across the city.

“This isn’t a temporary project. This is another institutionalized piece of how they collect information,” said Lisa Calderon, co-chair of the Colorado Latino Forum, who sat on the task force that created the program.

“I think what we don’t know is the format. Will it always be this card? But the intention is that we’re continually collecting this information so we can analyze it.”

The program has been two years in the hatching, and was devised by representatives of the Denver Department of Safety, Police Department and Office of the Independent Monitor, as well as the Greater Metro Denver Ministerial Alliance, the Denver branch of the NAACP, the ACLU of Colorado and the Colorado Latino Forum.

Nick Mitchell, the independent monitor of the Denver Police and Sheriff’s departments, said he often speaks with residents who allege racial profiling by local law enforcement.

“When people share anecdotes and perceptions and stories,” Mitchell said at the Park Hill meeting, “there’s often not a very good answer to their concerns because we simply have not had comprehensive data about who’s being stopped, where they’re being stopped, why they’re being stopped, the outcomes of all of those stops.”

Calderon said she’s been concerned by the same kind of anecdotal evidence of bias that Mitchell hears.

“If you don’t have data, it’s hard to prove what you’re going through, even though people in your community feel like they’re being surveilled,” Calderon said.

About 50 people attended the event. Calderon and Mitchell were joined on stage by Stephanie O’Malley, special assistant to the mayor and former Denver safety manager, and by top officials within the Denver Police Department, including outgoing Chief Robert White.

To start, only patrol officers will be required to participate in the program. Detectives and off-duty officers may be added to a future version. The patrol officers in District 2 will fill out the contact card any time they have “reasonable suspicion or probable cause” of wrongdoing by someone, White said.

Thomas assured the public that citizens won’t notice any difference in the amount of time average police stops take. The police union was invited to weigh in as the pilot was being created, but “they never even responded, so we don’t know how they feel,” Murray said.

Deputy Chief Matt Murray said that officers will fill out and file the 34-point data card after every discretionary interaction during the pilot period. Among the 34 data points are many “yes or no” questions, including: “Pat-down conducted?” “Full search conducted?” “Issue summons?”  “Foot pursuit?” and “Seize contraband?” The card also requires officers to describe their “reasonable suspicion or probable cause,” in addition to answering a series of basic questions about the person they’re contacting, and the reason for that contact.

Officers will face a progressive discipline schedule if they don’t follow the new program, Murray said, starting with an oral reprimand and possibly escalating to a firing.

He acknowledged the pilot could unearth some ugly data on bias.

“Body-cams changed officer behavior. Can we cheer for that?” Murray said. “If there’s negative behavior and this helps change that, that’s a good thing.”

The first half of the nearly two-hour event centered mostly on discussion of the contact-card program. None of the officials present actually brought a copy or photo of the card, which meant the public was unable to give specific feedback. The second half of the event was dominated by public comments from people who, in many cases, showed up to air general grievances about police bias and brutality.

After some earlier discussion of what constitutes “resisting arrest,” a woman named Janice Greenwood said, “It doesn’t make sense for 10 officers to take down one person, with their knee on the back, … screaming about ‘stop resisting.’

“Who are you protecting? And who am I going to get to protect me from you?”

Calderon thanked Greenwood for her comment and said that sort of anger is what led to the creation of the upcoming pilot.

“Will this change anything?” Calderon added. “That’s what we’re going to see.”

Photo by Alex Burness

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