PSP Fleet 4

Lights on the front of Pennsylvania State Police vehicles.

THE ISSUE

In 2012, the Pennsylvania State Police stopped collecting data on the race of drivers its troopers pull over, Spotlight PA’s Angela Couloumbis and Daniel Simmons-Ritchie reported for an article that appeared in the Sept. 22 Sunday LNP. “On Sept. 17, after being presented with the findings of Spotlight PA’s nationwide survey, State Police officials said the agency would reverse course and resume collection next year,” Couloumbis and Simmons-Ritchie wrote. Spotlight PA is an independent, nonpartisan newsroom powered by The Philadelphia Inquirer. Its partners include LNP and The Caucus, an LNP Media Group watchdog publication, as well as the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, PennLive/Harrisburg Patriot-News and PA Post.

We applaud Spotlight PA for uncovering this concerning news about the lack of transparency by Pennsylvania State Police — something that has gone on for about seven years.

We should all be appreciative of this level of journalism. How long might the practice have continued without this media scrutiny? What about other regions of the country — the growing “news deserts” — where no journalists are peering into topics such as this one?

To be sure, this reporting matters.

Some background from the Spotlight PA piece: State Police tracked data on the race of drivers who were pulled over until the mid-1970s. And “it resumed collection in 2002 as part of a project with the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Cincinnati,” Couloumbis and Simmons-Ritchie wrote.

Then, the decision to end the data collection was made in 2012 by the State Police executive staff, led by former Commissioner Frank Noonan. One possible reason might have been the cost of analyzing the data, which amounted to about $140,000 per year. (That’s about .01% of the State Police’s annual budget of $1.3 billion, Spotlight PA notes.)

When contacted by reporters, Noonan said he was unaware of the end of the data collection on his watch.

Also unaware: the public.

That we were never informed of the cessation of this data collection by State Police is a problem. This was a strike against transparency. And a decision that should not have been made without public knowledge.

And so, seven years later, Pennsylvania State Police is currently the largest statewide law enforcement agency in the nation that does not collect race data during stops.

Collecting this data is crucial.

Most states collect it, and we believe the public is entitled to it.

To us, it’s a simple matter of accountability.

If you have the data, you can present it to the public. The statistics can show where an agency might need to make changes in training or best practices. The data can also show where the police are doing well.

If you don’t have the data, you are open to legitimate questions about what you’re suppressing.

“It makes it look like you either don’t care about disparities or you are trying to hide what the data shows. And that undermines police legitimacy,” Christy Lopez, a professor at Georgetown Law and former official in the U.S. Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, told Spotlight PA.

Added Witold Walczak, the legal director for the ACLU of Pennsylvania: “If you are serious about addressing any kind of discriminatory conduct in law enforcement, you have to keep this data — it’s absolutely essential.”

We agree.

We believe strongly that the Pennsylvania State Police do an outstanding job on our highways and in our communities. Troopers put their lives on the line to keep us safe and enforce the law.

So it’s a shame that a minor administrative decision years ago — one that doesn’t even save much money — set the agency up for uncomfortable questions about potential racial, ethnic or gender bias in traffic stops.

We do applaud State Police for announcing it will resume data collection next year, even while wondering if that would have been the case if Spotlight PA hadn’t investigated the issue.

“We do feel that collecting this information would yield valuable statistical information for the department,” Lt. Col. Scott Price, the deputy commissioner of administration and professional responsibility, told Couloumbis and Simmons-Ritchie in an email. Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf’s office also supports the decision to resume data collection.

To the agency’s credit, State Police troopers are given rigorous anti-bias training. “Fair and impartial enforcement of the law is mandated not only by written policy, but also by the culture of the department,” Price said.

That’s great news. Now if only the agency had the data to back up those practices. To show the public.

Starting next year, it once again will. It should never have been halted.