TAMPA — The Tampa Police Department will work with an outside expert to track, analyze and publicly release data on all traffic stops to ensure officers are not racially profiling motorists.
Newly sworn-in police Chief Mary O’Connor made the commitment this week at an annual event hosted by the Hillsborough Organization for Progress and Equality. Also known as HOPE, the nonprofit collective of more than two dozen local churches advocates for social reforms and has been pushing local law enforcement agencies to collect more data on traffic stops.
HOPE on Monday held its annual Nehemiah Action event, during which the group invites local leaders and policymakers to a meeting to get commitments from them on specific issues. O’Connor was asked if the department would “work with an outside expert to track, analyze and communicate data on all traffic stops.”
“Yes,” the chief replied, drawing applause and cheers from the crowd at Nativity Catholic Church in Brandon.
“If you guys have the knowledge, you now have the power to make change in your police department if the data suggests that there is something disparate there,” O’Connor said. “So the first thing we need to do is collect the data.”
O’Connor’s commitment is believed to be the first of its kind among major law enforcement agencies in the Tampa Bay area.
Last year, when the Tampa Bay Times requested comprehensive traffic stop databases from six major police departments and sheriff’s agencies in the area — statistics readily available in some U.S. jurisdictions and that experts say is necessary for a thorough analysis — none could provide them.
When asked, Tampa police shared that over six months ending in May, officers made more than 17,000 stops and issued 9,000 tickets. Of those tickets, roughly one-third went to white drivers and one third to Black drivers — though only about one fifth of Tampa’s population is Black. The agency said it also could export more information from citations, for a processing fee.
In a Times story about the issue published in July, criminal justice researchers said collecting deeper data on all traffic stops allows agencies to identify disparities and patterns that go beyond individual complaints. They said making that information easily accessible to the public is crucial for accountability and transparency.
The story noted that earlier last year, HOPE invited Hillsborough law enforcement leaders to meet with Jack McDevitt, a professor at Northeastern University’s Institute of Race and Justice. McDevitt’s research team has conducted traffic stop studies in Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Kansas. He explained why his team needed information for all traffic stops, not just those that end in citations or warnings, to conduct a full review.
But HOPE members left angry — then-Tampa police Chief Brian Dugan and Hillsborough Sheriff Chad Chronister had sent representatives in their places, and those people asked few questions.
HOPE invited Chronister to its Nehemiah Action event this week but he did not attend. In a statement to the Times for this story, Chronister said he recognizes “the importance of tracking data to ensure that racial bias is never a factor during interactions with the public.”
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The sheriff noted his office already maintains a database with demographic information related to traffic stops where a uniform traffic citation or written warning is issued.
“We constantly review this information, which is also available to the public upon request,” Chronister said. “I have established a diverse workforce, which continually receives training, and body worn cameras also capture interactions with the public, to include traffic stops, which supervisors and staff regularly review. I do not see a need for taxpayers to incur an additional expense for an external entity to replicate a function that is already in practice.”
At Monday’s event, O’Connor said her department also already collects demographic data when someone stopped by police is issued a citation or warning, and the department is working on an online dashboard so the public can view that information in real time.
HOPE officials say anything short of tracking all traffic stops is not enough.
“Over the past several years, we’ve heard story after story of HOPE members or their loved ones who have experienced racial profiling,” the Rev. Michael Price of Victory African Methodist Episcopal Church in Progress Village said at Monday’s event. “Many feel they are pulled over unnecessarily and often it doesn’t result in a warning, citation or arrest. This erodes trust and instills fear among both community and law enforcement.”
The Tampa Police Department already has a publicly accessible feature along those lines for bicycle stops.
A 2015 Tampa Bay Times investigation revealed the department was encouraging officers to disproportionately target poor, Black neighborhoods. A subsequent report by the federal government found the tactic didn’t work to reduce crime or curb bicycle thefts. It recommended reducing bike stops and documenting reasons for them.
In response, the department created an interactive dashboard that updates weekly and tracks date, location and outcome of bike stops by race.