Blogs | Ethan Shorey

ACLU asks Pawtucket officials to dig deeper on possible racism

As officers continue an internal investigation into allegations of racism in the Pawtucket Police Department, the ACLU of Rhode Island is calling for a much deeper look at the department's practices pertaining to minorities over the past decade.

Executive Director Steven Brown, in a letter dated April 2, said a Breeze story on accusations that officers regularly the N-word was "disturbing," and said ACLU officials are pleased to know that an internal investigation is happening. But Brown wants Pawtucket officials to take a deeper look "into possible race-related police practices beyond those that have thus far been cited."

Though the specific allegations so far cause some concern that racist attitudes might be impacting hiring and promotion decisions for minority officers, said Brown, the "potentially much deeper issue" is that alleged offhand comments about minority residents by officers may indicate that racially-motivated actions are being taken against those minorities.

Representatives for the ACLU studied statistical evidence from the past decade on the department's record of stopping and searching drivers, and "those statistics paint a very damning picture," said Brown, one that should be part of a deeper investigation.

Since 2001, there have been three separate occasions when police departments across the state have been required to gather race-based data on stops and searches, said Brown, and an examination of the data from all three periods "shows a very troubling pattern by Pawtucket police that, particularly in light of the recent allegations, warrants a very thorough public investigation."

Pawtucket appears to have ranked among the worst in terms of disproportionately searching racial minorities, according to Brown.

Pawtucket Public Safety Director Tony Pires said Tuesday that officials received the letter on Monday afternoon and will be writing an appropriate response.

Read my story from last November detailing police officials' explanation for the disparities.

Of the 10 departments studied by the ACLU, the statistics show a consistent pattern, said Brown:

• In 2001-2002, Pawtucket police searched black and Latino drivers more than 3.5 times as often as white drivers, the second highest ratio among the 10 departments studied.

• In 2004-2005, Pawtucket's ratio of non-white to white searches was the highest of all 10 departments. The disparity rate declined, as it did in most other jurisdictions due at least in part to a new statutory ban on consent searches, but the disparity itself - searching minority drivers 2.5 times as often as whites - topped the list.

• In 2014, Pawtucket again had the second highest ratio of non-white to white traffic searches, searching black and Latino drivers about three times as often as white drivers.

"Needless to say, the consistency of the data is extraordinarily troubling," said Brown. "It suggests that racial discrimination in the department may extend far beyond the occasional use of racist language by a few police officers to a pattern of conduct that permeates daily law enforcement practices as well."

Brown asked that Pawtucket officials "expand the nature of" their investigation to include an in-depth analysis of the data and police practices pertaining to it. The ACLU is asking that officials continue to collect data and continue to analyze it. The organization is also calling for "a concrete plan of action to address the serious inequalities documented by the traffic stop statistics."

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