OPD's 'precision policing': Fewer arrests, crime is down, racial disparity remains, study shows

Oakland police are proud of a new Stanford study highlighting the fact that their officers have been arresting less people and crime has not soared as many in law enforcement had feared; it's actually been going down.

But while the study credited police for having a smaller "footprint" in terms of arrests, the authors noted that in terms of racial disparity, police have made "very little progress." In all, police have arrested 21 percent less people in the last six months under a strategy coined "precision policing." Of that number, police arrested 18 percent less African American people and 34 percent less whites. 

Oakland's police chief wanted to focus on the fact that about 1,100 fewer African Americans have been arrested since June under her leadership. 

“We want to restore where we have caused harm,” Police Chief Anne Kirkpatrick told KTVU on Friday morning. “We have a new story to tell.”

Precision policing, she said, is a strategy that doesn't look at “a person’s gender or race, but on behavior, based on history.”

Kirkpatrick said that 80 percent of the crime in Oakland is perpetrated by 20 percent of the population. So that knowledge, she said, is now driving whom police stop on the street.

“Instead of looking at everybody,” she said, “we only look at the precise people who are engaged in criminal behavior.” And police know that, she said, by looking at “repeated behavior.”

Critics of the Stanford report made public on Feb. 2, first reported by the the East Bay Express, however, quickly noted that the numbers are misleading. 

“The fact is, that stops are down overall,” said Rashidah Grinage, coordinator of the Coalition for Police Accountabilty, who attends the federally court-mandated hearings for Oakland police. “So that means that there are fewer stops of African-Americans, as well as fewer stops for whites and Latinos. Any time you 'de-police,' you'll get better statistics and less complaints filed. What needs to change is the disproportionate numbers -- not the absolute numbers. In reality, there are fewer stops being made overall -- that's the only real story here.”

In fact, Grinage said, the inference from the study shows that racial profiling is still happening. "The real reduction was with white people," she said, "and the conclusion that OPD wants you to reach is not supported by the data."

Kirkpatrick, through her spokeswoman Johnna Watson, declined to address the disparity issue, or answer other followup questions from KTVU. Those include: How does the department intend to address this racial disparity gap, if at all? Are there any downsides to this method of policing? How can the department be so sure that officers are honing in on "precise" repeat offenders if those people were previously arrested during a racially biased era? And why did it take the department until this summer to employ precision policing?

Instead of pulling people over for minor crimes, such as broken tail lights and broken windows, the philosophy behind the precision policing method is to use hard data and analyze trends to decide where aggressive enforcement is appropriate.

Zachary Norris, executive director of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights in Oakland, said he was overall pleased with the idea of less people getting arrested for minor crimes. "I think it's good that their footprint has been reduced, for everyone, " he said. But at the same time, he added that Oakland police should not take credit for a "restored relationship" with the African-American community. "That's B.S," he said. He also added that while it's also great that crime is down in Oakland, it should not be directly attributed to this policing model; multi-layered socio-economic factors are also at play.

Kirkpatrick said that "Oakland is leading the way" in terms of precision policing. But the strategy was first used by then-New York Police Commissioner William Bratton in 2014 to address NYPD's controversial method of "stop-and-frisk" policing.

And while many in law enforcement had thought that crime would go up if smaller issues, like broken taillights weren’t addressed, precision policing in both Oakland and New Yor, proves that "broken windows" theory to be false: Violent crime and robberies are down in both cities.

The Stanford report, authored social psychology professor Benoit Monin and his Independent Monitoring Team, shows that Oakland police made 3,040 fewer stops, or 21 percent less, of all people between December 2016 and November 2017. But in terms of who gets arrested, Stanford found that racial disparities have not been overcome.

In the ‘disparaties’ focus, we would conclude that very little progress has been made,” the report noted,as the share of African Americans goes up slightly from 66 percent to 68 percent. Looking at absolute numbers, however, note that 1,723 fewer African Americans who were stopped with no other ensuing citation or arrest dropped from 6,420 to 5,259, a drop of 18 percent.”  The number of whites arrested, the study noted, dropped by 34 percent.

African Americans still account for roughly two-thirds of all police stops even though they only account for one-quarter of the city's total population.

Monin declined a request for a followup interview on his report, deferring questions to Oakland police.

This is not the first study that Stanford has produced for Oakland police. This summer, Stanford professors found that Oakland police officers speak less respectfully to black residents than white residents, after reviewing the transcripts of 183 hours of body camera footage from 981 stops. And in June 2016, Stanford researchers found that African-American men were four times more likely to be searched than whites during a traffic stop, and were also more likely to be handcuffed, even if they ultimately were not arrested.

The Stanford researchers were asked to help Oakland comply with a federal order to collect and analyze stop data by race after the department was put under federal monitoring since the so-called Riders case involving police misconduct. The university and the police department have been working together since 2014.