In the wake of revelations that state troopers are searching people of color at a much higher rate than whites, the Washington State Patrol said it’s moving forward to address the problem and lawmakers say they will be looking at the issue during this year’s legislative session.

After analyzing data from millions of traffic stops conducted by the State Patrol, InvestigateWest last month revealed that black, Latino, Native American and Pacific Islander drivers were searched at a higher rate than white motorists ⁠— even though troopers found drugs or other contraband at a higher rate when they searched white motorists or their cars. 

Native Americans were searched at a rate five times higher than white motorists. About one-third of those searches of Native Americans were clustered at the edges of the Colville and Yakama reservations in Eastern Washington.

The State Patrol says it is already in talks with university researchers to look into the issue; it has put some Seattle-area troopers through an anti-bias training course that is more comprehensive than what cadets receive in the training academy; and the agency has been trying for years to recruit for diversity. 

In Olympia, legislators expressed outrage at InvestigateWest’s findings, if not urgency. A number of top-ranking Democrats said they want to see improvements, but also said they’re satisfied the State Patrol says it’s going to address the problem.

Rep. Gina Mosbrucker, R-Goldendale, called the elevated search rate for Native Americans “unacceptable.” She  met with Washington State Patrol officials to discuss InvestigateWest’s findings.  (Photo: Washington State House Republicans)

Rep. Gina Mosbrucker, a Goldendale Republican who in recent sessions passed legislation to improve Washington State’s investigations of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, said she met with Patrol officials shortly after the story came out and is trying to schedule a meeting with the office of Gov. Jay Inslee as well.

One step that Mosbrucker and some Democratic leaders in the House support is funding a new round of studies in partnership with Washington State University. In 2003, 2005 and 2007, WSU researchers raised flags about the high search rate for Native Americans, although they couldn’t say it was a result of racial bias. One of those researchers estimated a new round of studies could be conducted for about $50,000.

Mosbrucker called the elevated search rates for Native Americans “unacceptable.” And so “I needed to figure out what the answers were and why it was happening,” she said. 

“I do think it rises to a priority status in a 60-day session, “ she added later.

Chris Loftis, spokesman for the Washington State Patrol, said the agency is in talks with Washington State University to start conducting studies again. In 2003, 2005 and 2007, WSU researchers raised flags about the high search rate for Native Americans, although they couldn’t say it was a result of racial bias. (Photo: Washington State Patrol)

State Patrol spokesman Chris Loftis said the agency is in talks with the university to start conducting the studies again. State Patrol Chief John Batiste shared InvestigateWest’s report with the agency’s entire staff to bring awareness to the problem, and Loftis said that the Patrol is working to improve its diversity, enhance anti-bias training and increase public engagement. Batiste, the patrol chief since 2005, is black.

“We want to go into a deeper dive … to really tease out that information that might link to discretionary decisions for searches,” Loftis said. “We’re excited about that. We’ve made it clear we’re looking for real-world applicable information that will help us with training and improvement of our processes and protocols going forward.”

Rep. Roger Goodman, D-Kirkland, said he is encouraged by the direction the State Patrol is taking in the wake of InvestigateWest’s reporting. (Photo: Washington State Legislature)

A number of lawmakers gave the State Patrol high marks for acknowledging the problem and promising to address it. 

“I’m encouraged by the direction the State Patrol is taking after these revelations,” said Rep. Roger Goodman, D-Kirkland, the chair of the House Criminal Justice Committee. “They’re not denying everything. They’re going to bolster training. They’re going to collect more data. I’m satisfied with their response.”

InvestigateWest’s reporting uncovered documents showing the State Patrol 10 years ago abandoned a partnership with Washington State University looking into racial disparities in traffic stops.

The Patrol also didn’t comply with a legislative requirement to submit reports about race and ethnicity of motorists stopped and searched to the Criminal Justice Training Commission.

The agency didn’t dispute the findings, but did note that the 2003-2007 WSU studies couldn’t say the disparity in search rates was a result of intentional bias. 

The State Patrol has not filed a report examining the race and ethnicity of drivers who troopers stop and search since 2009, despite a 2000 law that required those reports semi-annually. In 2009, a Patrol official successfully argued against continuing to produce the reports, saying it was unlikely anyone would notice. (Only two other reports had been submitted, in 2001 and 2008.) When state legislators passed a bill to reduce paperwork seven years later, the State Patrol’s reporting requirement was rescinded. 

Rep. Javier Valdez, D-Seattle, seeks more diversity in the ranks of the Washington State Patrol. He criticized an agency report for failing to address the low number of people of color in upper administrative positions. (Photo: Washington State House Democrats)

Not all legislators are pleased with the State Patrol’s response. Rep. Javier Valdez, a Seattle Democrat who’s a vice chair of the Transportation Committee that oversees the State Patrol’s budget, said he’s disappointed with the agency’s recruitment efforts.

The Patrol’s officers are more than 85 percent white and nearly 90 percent male.

Last year,  Valdez passed legislation requiring the State Patrol to generate a report on how the agency will recruit for diversity. In the resultant report, the Patrol wrote that it’s putting recruits through new intercultural sensitivity testing, a 2018 addition to the application process that measures their attitudes toward other cultures; a poor performance counts against the recruit’s overall qualification evaluation. Starting this year, the Patrol will use an automated background check system that is supposed to eliminate any biases that might be exhibited by a human evaluator.

Meanwhile, the agency is continuing to recruit at colleges and high schools with large minority populations and working with an outside marketing firm “to target underrepresented groups” for recruitment, according to the State Patrol’s report. This year, the Patrol is providing schools with virtual job shadowing video “ride alongs” that follow troopers and other Patrol employees during their daily routine.

Loftis said the agency tried to feature a diverse cast in the videos and will target schools with high populations of racial and ethnic groups that are underrepresented in the Patrol.

“We want to make sure minorities and women see themselves in the subjects of our videos,” he said.

Valdez criticized the Patrol’s report for failing to address the low number of people of color in upper administrative positions.

He said the report “lacks sufficient research into what models and methods they could do throughout the state to ensure they’re reaching communities not historically recruited by the State Patrol.” Valdez said the Patrol needs to better communicate with young people of color, showing “here’s why if you’re from an underrepresented community in the Yakima Valley, why it’s so important to have folks that look like them in the State Patrol ranks.” 

Patrol officials said the decision to conduct the report internally came after $645,000 for a workforce diversity plan was stripped from its 2019 budget legislation. The Patrol said the money would have been spent on having an outside, objective party examine what has and hasn’t worked for the State Patrol’s past recruiting methods, study what has worked for other agencies and assess if issues beyond recruiting, such as the way the agency screens recruits and then trains them, are to blame for a lack of diversity.

“Having an objective set of eyes that would come to us, we would welcome that scrutiny, but that scrutiny costs money,” Loftis said.

Capt. Neil Weaver, the Patrol’s legislative liaison, said: “I can tell you it would have definitely been a different report” had the Legislature provided the funding. 

Rep. Debra Lekanoff, D-Bow, calls for  State Patrol troopers to become familiar with the communities they police.  “The majority of your police officers in Indian Country are not people of color.” (Photo: Washington State House Democrats)

Improving diversity is important going forward, as is making sure troopers have training about and are familiar with the communities they’re policing, said Rep. Debra Lekanoff, D-Bow. 

“The majority of your police officers in Indian Country are not people of color,” said Lekanoff, an Alaska Native who served as the governmental affairs director for the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community for more than 15 years.

“How do we create the conversation that you are all working in a minority community?” she said, calling for “understanding a racial dialogue of honoring and respecting the … trauma a minority community has gone through.”

Mosbrucker, the Republican legislator, said she thinks the two tribal liaison positions funded as part of her legislation to address Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women ⁠— one of the positions has been filled and the Patrol says it’s in the process of hiring the other ⁠— will be able to help with issues like complaints about bias in Indian Country.

“I think they’re going to be a sounding board and (tribal leaders) are going to have ideas they can share with this tribal liaison,” she said. “They’re going to have someone who does call them back and can work with them.”

Loftis, the Patrol spokesman, said some troopers in the Seattle area began in July attending an eight-hour anti-bias training session taught by minister and Morehouse College associate professor Bryant T. Marks. The training, which is hosted by the King County Sheriff’s Office at the Criminal Justice Training Commission in Burien, is far more extensive than the one-hour “implicit bias” class cadets receive at the State Patrol’s academy.

Bryant T. Marks, an associate professor of psychology at Morehouse College, is the founding director and principal trainer with the National Training Institute on Race & Equity, through which he provides implicit bias training to educators and police officers, including this training with the Vermont Police Department in 2018. (Photo: Vermont Police Department)

Loftis said the Patrol is considering expanding the training to other regions, but is waiting to see the new anti-bias curriculum the state is developing as a result of the I-940 ballot measure passed by voters in 2018. I-940 requires police training in violence de-escalation and mental health issues. There are logistical hurdles to pulling troopers off the road to attend training sessions as well, Loftis said.

Rep. Timm Ormsby, D-Spokane, sponsored the 2016 legislation that eliminated the State Patrol’s need to report race and ethnicity data to the Criminal Justice Training Commission. He expressed satisfaction with the State Patrol’s promise to address the disparity in search rates. (Photo: Washington State House Democrats)

When launching additional bias training, “I’d start with the Yakama or the Colville reservations if I was them,” said Rep. Timm Ormsby, D-Spokane. But Ormsby, the House Appropriations Chair who in 2016 sponsored legislation that eliminated the State Patrol’s need to report race and ethnicity data to the Criminal Justice Training Commission, also expressed satisfaction with the agency’s promise to address the issue.

“I’ve got a million questions about this,” Ormsby said, adding later: “This is about problem-solving as opposed to some fanfare.”

Rep. Tana Senn,  D-Mercer Island, who was the primary sponsor on the paperwork reduction bill that canceled the reporting requirement, called the disparities in search rates InvestigateWest found “outrageous.”

Rep. Tana Senn, D-Mercer Island, called the disparities in search rates “outrageous.” (Photo: Washington House Democrats)

“I would say looking at that today, it would probably be a different decision in including that in that piece of legislation,” Senn said of canceling the reporting requirement. But she later shared with InvestigateWest an email from Weaver, the State Patrol’s legislative liaison. In it, Weaver outlines what the agency is doing to address the disparity in its searches and says it asked Senn to eliminate the reporting requirement in 2016 because “contact with CJTC indicated they did not do anything with the report once they received it from our agency.” 

The State Patrol maintains detailed data about the racial and ethnic makeup of the people it stops. But that information is not in an easily accessible format. To conduct its analysis, InvestigateWest used traffic stop data obtained by Stanford University through a Public Records Act request and employed a statistical computing tool to drill down into records of 8 million traffic stops.

The reports the State Patrol submitted to the Criminal Justice Training Commission are easier to understand, but less detailed. The final report submitted in 2009, provided by the State Patrol’s public affairs office after the agency’s open records office initially said it couldn’t find a copy, includes statistics on the ethnicity, race, age and gender of the people troopers stop, as well as the reason for stops. But it has little information about searches.

“We didn’t eliminate the importance of the data collection, and I think the question is, are we looking at the data?” Senn said. “I think the Washington State Patrol needs to be looking at that data on a regular basis, and make sure they’re adjusting their training and resources accordingly.”

This story has been clarified to state that nearly 90 percent of the patrol’s officers are male and that more than 85 percent are white.

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