An ambitious state program launched two years ago to explore the disproportionate number of minority drivers pulled over on state roads has failed to produce any comprehensive results because nearly half of the targeted police departments did not follow the recommended guidelines and the state never received or reviewed any data, according to documents obtained by the Globe.
The failure to comply with the requested data collection and the lack of any statewide analysis leave unanswered the central question that prompted African-American activists and lawmakers to originally demand the review: Is "driving while black" a real phenomenon in Massachusetts?
The issue is particularly sensitive for Governor Deval Patrick, the state's first black governor and the former assistant attorney general for civil rights in the Clinton Justice Department. In an interview, Patrick's public safety secretary, Kevin M. Burke, said the program, launched under the Romney administration, has been a "step along the way."
Patrick, he said, now plans to ask police departments to voluntarily share their traffic data with the state. If he is not satisfied with their response, Patrick may require them to do so, Burke said.
"He won't wait forever," Burke said. "If our next step doesn't seem to be bearing fruit, then we'll look to move in another direction."
According to a review conducted by the Patrick administration, only 140 of the 247 police departments that had been targeted for special scrutiny followed the guidelines, which call for officers to fill out detailed reports every time they stop a driver. These reports include space to note the race and gender of the driver, the duration and reason for the stop, what type of road it happened on, and whether the car was searched and if so, what was found.
Another 104 police departments noted the race and gender of the driver and the reason for the stop, but rejected the more detailed aspects. Three departments told the state they did not record racial or gender data, and 12 departments never indicated what action, if any, they took, despite repeated promptings by the state. The numbers in the state's analysis added up to more than 247 because some departments used more than one method; for example, some might have used the detailed reports briefly and then switched to a different method.
Police chiefs, many of whom have opposed the program since its inception, said the lack of results was predictable. Many chiefs have long contended that there is no widespread racial profiling in Massachusetts and that asking officers to fill out detailed reports on every traffic stop wastes police resources. Several also complained that the software the state gave them to crunch the data was too difficult to use. Surveys returned to the Patrick administration showed that 138 of the departments analyzed their traffic data internally. But 89 departments did not analyze any of the data they collected, while eight did not indicate whether they performed any analysis. None turned over their findings to the state, nor were they required to under the state program.
"The data collection was really seen as a waste of time," said John M. Collins, general counsel for the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association. "It was clear the people controlling it were on a witch hunt for political reasons. Nobody honestly believed racial profiling was going on in all these 247 cities and towns."
Activists who called for the creation of the program said police departments should recognize that sharing traffic data would help build confidence that minority drivers are not being unfairly targeted in their communities.
"We have an African-American governor in the corner office; I would like to think our law enforcement personnel would recognize that times have changed," said Darnell L. Williams, president and chief executive of the Urban League of Eastern Massachusetts. "We want to see that there's real transparency across the Commonwealth."
The program traces its roots to 2000, when the Legislature passed a law that required officers to record the race and gender of every driver issued a ticket or warning and for the state to compile the data. Minority lawmakers helped pass the measure, pointing to years of anecdotal reports from drivers who said they had been stopped because of their skin color.
Four years later, after reviewing 1.6 million traffic citations issued between April 1, 2001, and June 30, 2003, the state released its findings. The results showed that in 247 departments, the percent of citations issued to minorities was significantly higher than the percent of minorities living in the community and estimated to be driving on the roads.
The list included the State Police, the Boston police, most of the state's large cities, as well as many small towns like Upton and Spencer.
The law then required that departments that had ticketed disproportionate number of minorities to collect data for a second year, from September 2005 to September 2006, for all traffic stops - not just those resulting in citations.
In addition to logging the race and gender of the driver, they were also supposed to note the reason for every stop, even if no ticket was issued.
In response to concerns raised by the initial results, state officials also went a step further, working with police chiefs to develop a detailed report with additional questions, which they recommended that departments use, saying it could help officers bolster their argument that the disparities were not a reflection of racial bias.
For example, some officers had contended that racial disparities in traffic stops reflected a positive trend: they were responding to requests for extra patrols in minority neighborhoods. Other officers attributed the disparities to the methodology the state used to estimate the number of minority drivers in communities. And the Boston Police Patrolmen's Association sued to prevent officers from having to identify themselves on the traffic reports, eventually losing in the Supreme Judicial Court.
Carol Rose, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, said drivers might also like to study the findings.
"The public would like to know: How's my police department doing?" Rose said.
Senator Dianne Wilkerson, the highest-ranking African-American state lawmaker, who helped pass the original 2000 law, said the program showed mixed results. Some police acted on their data, others did not. Recently, she said, she met with Burke and other lawmakers to consider revisions. Among the options, she said, are incentives or requirements for police to thoroughly report and analyze the data to determine whether they are racially profiling.
"When all is said and done, what we're talking about is an illegal and discriminatory practice," Wilkerson said. "It's not a universal practice in Massachusetts, but we do have enough info to raise some concerns."