Collecting more information could help police build trust, study suggests

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By JEREMY WAHR
Capital News Service

LANSING — Information that could help protect citizens from being unfairly targeted and police from unfair accusations is not required to be collected.

Michigan is among 29 states that don’t require police to collect demographic information during vehicle stops, according to a study by the National Conference of State Legislatures and the Laura and John Arnold Foundation.

Collecting demographic information from people stopped by the police should be the norm, said Dale Nesbary, the president of Muskegon Community College and a former research director for the Boston Police Department.

“It is very difficult to know that we live in 2018, and only half the states properly collect demographic information,” Nesbary said. “I don’t think that is acceptable.”

Although there are no legislative obligations to collect data, or any statewide or national databases, most police agencies do collect some form of identification, said Mark Barnett, the chief of the Ludington Police Department.

The demographic information is taken from driver’s licenses, when possible, and from other records when needed, said Fred Timpner, executive director of the Michigan Association of Police.

One benefit of such information being collected in a statewide database would be to diffuse stereotypes and unfounded claims about certain ethnicities, he said.

Nesbary said it would be simple to add a person’s demographic information to a database at the time of a traffic stop. If departments don’t  collect data, they would be unable to prove they are operating correctly.

Every police agency throughout the nation should collect demographic information, Nesbary said. It takes excuses and the possibility of false information being distributed off the table, and it would take less time to collect data than to defend against a false charge, he said.

On another topic, the study found that 83 percent of civilians surveyed believed that they had an accurate understanding of the risks police officers face, while only 14 percent of police surveyed believed they do.

Nesbary said the explanation for the discrepancy is simple: Everyone believes they are an expert.

“By observing how police do their work on TV or movies, or by what their neighbor told them, that’s how some citizens understand policing,” Nesbary said. “That is not the same as understanding what a police officer goes through.”

“This doesn’t just apply to police officers,” Nesbary added. “Anyone who is an expert believes that they are the expert, and nobody could possibly understand what they do.”

It’s common for people to misunderstand the work of professions outside of their own, Barnett agreed. The use of TV and media give people unrealistic ideas of what pressures other people face.

The feelings of police as a group also help explain why they believe that so few citizens understand them, said Barry Goetz, a sociology professor at Western Michigan University. An us-versus-them mentality has become more common as a few high-profile killings of unarmed people increased the criticism they face.

Nesbary said most professionals don’t take the time to see what their communities think of them, simply making assumptions instead.

But those national findings don’t translate perfectly to local communities, said David Molloy, the Novi police chief and president of the Michigan Association of Chiefs of Police.

National surveys don’t always represent smaller towns and cities, where trust between police and civilians might be higher, Molloy said.

Community engagement is a priority, Molloy said. His department puts out a detailed survey every two years, to measure community opinion on how police services are performed and what could be improved or done differently.

Molloy offers this advice to maintain positive relations between the police and the public:  “Treat every contact you have as an opportunity to build trust,I teach that anytime I train someone or give a class.”