Berkeley police stops show racial disparities — but what does that mean?

An analysis of Berkeley police data shows reasons for optimism and room to improve. Photo: Emilie Raguso

Black and Hispanic drivers and pedestrians stopped by police in Berkeley are searched “at much higher rates” than white ones, according to a report released this week by the Center for Policing Equity (CPE).

Researchers have taken a close look at racial disparities in police contacts by comparing the race of people stopped by police to Berkeley’s racial demographics. The CPE report also looks at racial differences in search, citation and arrest rates of people who are stopped. The analysis found that, despite the higher search rates, black and Hispanic individuals were about half as likely to be arrested afterward: Researchers say this raises questions about whether local police might reconsider aspects of how they do their work, and whether bias may be playing a role.

Representatives from the Center for Policing Equity told the city’s Police Review Commission on Wednesday night that the city has reason to be proud, however: Berkeley police traffic and pedestrian stops showed the lowest racial disparities in the nation, among hundreds of agencies that have been studied.

“As our president said in front of a national conference … Berkeley PD has fewer disparities than any of the 240 police departments that he’s seen through the National Justice Database project,” UC Berkeley PhD student Kimberly Burke told the PRC. “There are disparities in every institution in all contexts of the U.S. So it is completely reasonable that we should expect to see disparities in policing outcomes as well.”


Researchers said it’s also important not to equate observed disparities with discrimination or racial profiling.

“People tend to conflate the two ideas,” Burke said, “that if there’s disproportionality it is necessarily a product of racial bias. And that’s not always the case. And that’s something we’re trying to parse out in our analyses.”

The CPE analysis looked at Berkeley police stops of motorists, as well as use of force reports, from 2012 through 2016. Two years of pedestrian stop reports, from 2015 and 2016, also were analyzed.

The research found that black motorists were four times more likely to be searched than white ones, while Hispanic drivers were three times more likely to be searched. Researchers found that the higher search rates “are consistent with the possibility” that black and Hispanic people “were treated with greater suspicion by BPD officers.” About 20% of white people were arrested post-search, compared to 10% of black individuals and 12% of Hispanic ones.

Researchers said they did not take probation or parole status into account, or analyze whether the police stops were in response to community reports vs. officer-initiated activity or investigative stops. But that type of data could come into play later. According to a 2010 report from the Alameda County Health Department, “nearly one out of every 100 males in Alameda County is on county probation. African American males are far more likely to be on county probation than other groups.” African American males also have the highest parole rate, “four to 11 times higher than other racial/ethnic groups,” the Health Department reported. People on probation and parole are generally subject to search as part of the conditions of their release.

Berkeley Police Chief Andrew Greenwood has committed to releasing stop data annually, and continuing to work closely with CPE to improve the data available and how it is analyzed.

The CPE report also looked at racial differences related to use of force and compared it to the city’s population. It found that black people make up only 8% of the city’s population, but composed 46% of the people subjected to force. (For context, BPD has tallied 105 use of force incidents, out of 223,878 calls, over a recent three year period: That means 0.047% of calls for service resulted in a documented use of force.)


UC Berkeley Professor Jack Glaser, who is working with the CPE team, said it’s important to remember that comparisons to population are the “crudest possible benchmarks,” and that “you cannot place a lot of confidence” in them. That’s because there’s no guarantee that those who are stopped, searched or arrested by police actually live in Berkeley.

Chief Greenwood, in response to community questions about the difference between Berkeley’s population and the hometowns of arrestees, said about 41% of people arrested in Berkeley, from 2012 through 2017, provided an address out of town. Another 28% were listed as homeless, and the other 30% had Berkeley addresses. For 1% of the 14,363 arrests the city of residence was unknown. Out-of-towners got an even larger percentage of BPD’s citations: 54% compared to 32% of Berkeley residents.

A BPD analysis of its own arrest data from 2012 through 2017 found that about 50% of its arrests were of black people, followed by white people at 30% and Hispanic people at 12%. Arrests of Asian individuals and those identified as “other” were 8%. Year over year, the percentages for each racial group have varied little.

BPD also released data this week, in response to a Berkeleyside inquiry, about the demographics of its robbery calls. Robberies are the most common violent crime in Berkeley, with 364 reported last year. The vast majority of robberies are reported to police by community members who provide suspect descriptions when they can. Descriptions of robbery suspects, from 2015 through 2017, were 77% black, nearly 8% Hispanic, and 7% white.

A recent robbery call in downtown Berkeley. Photo: Emilie Raguso

One community member in attendance Wednesday night asked how the demographics of local crime might affect the data, or drive police stops. He said the report did not seem to account for that.

Professor Glaser pointed to the difference between crime reports, of a crime involving victims, and what he described as “discretionary policing” — which may be more likely to be a factor in police stops.


“We don’t actually know who is committing the crime,” said Glaser. He said the racial differences in “yield rates” — that black and Hispanic people are more likely to be stopped and searched, but less likely to be arrested — could support “a much stronger inference of whether there is bias.”

He continued: “If everybody who’s being stopped has an equal probability of being in possession of drugs or weapons regardless of their race or ethnicity, then you’d expect the yield rates to be the same.… But it does appear, in the Berkeley data and in every department I’ve ever seen, that whites are being subjected to a higher threshold of suspiciousness in order to be searched.”

Next steps

The policing equity report included 13 recommendations for BPD to consider, going forward, to improve the data it collects and address disparities, too.

They include more robust data collection related to use of force, crime trends and neighborhood demographics, as well as better documentation of contraband found during searches. Researchers say BPD should also share more of its use of force data with the public: “In particular, we recommend that it collect and analyze data about whether … and how the person resisted arrest, and about charges filed against persons involved in use of force incidents.”

The report also urges BPD to “continue to affirm” that egalitarian values are central to its mission, and to “cooperate with the broader Berkeley community, especially those communities most affected by observed racial disparities” to come up with collaborative reforms. That includes working with the PRC and other groups to review existing policies and find ways to improve.

“Berkeley appears to be doing better than most agencies, but it has work to do,” Glaser said Wednesday.

Greenwood said he’ll assess the recommendations in the CPE report, as well as recommendations made earlier this year by the PRC, and determine how to proceed.

“We are always seeking to improve,” he said in a memo earlier this week. “In the case of this report, that means looking for opportunities to improve equity in policing and guard against bias. Constitutional, fair and impartial policing are values that our department has long held, supported by policy and training for many years. We value diversity in our department and community. We train on recognizing and reducing bias, using de-escalation tactics, fair and impartial policing and crisis intervention skills. We do all this with the goal of building stronger relationships with the community we serve.”

Greenwood said Wednesday that the department is already looking at its use of force reporting to find ways to broaden it. He agreed with the research team that there is “a lot of potential for growth.” He said there are organizational obstacles, however, in terms of both resources and infrastructure.

“It’d be great to capture a whole bunch more data on every stop,” he said. But the question is, he continued, “How to even start doing that?”

“Police need to be giving data but also need to be doing their work,” he said. “So that’s a challenge.”

The city manager has said previously that she will report to the Berkeley City Council in September about the CPE and PRC reports, as well as other recommendations and ideas related to BPD that officials have put forward.

In April, the Berkeley City Council voted to create a new yearlong task force to study racial disparities in police stops to consider whether changes should be made. That task force has not been seated yet, however, and estimates put its creation perhaps around the time of the city manager’s report.