Ardmore, Lower Merion Township, PA — People, Police Departments, and companies can all be labeled as something they may or not be. One of the worst things society can label any of us is "RACIST." Once labeled, it is challenging to prove that you, a business, or even a police department is in fact, not racist.
Could a lone individual working for or in an organization be a racist and that organization not know? The answer is yes. But could data tell you if that were the case? Now, that depends.
"We are looking into data that most departments do not have the resources to capture and analyze," said Michael McGrath, Superintendent of the Lower Merion Police, speaking about the department's latest initiative, "Traffic Stop Data." "It was three years in the making," he said, "making sure that we had the right tools in place to gather and cross-check the data."
The Superintendent of the Lower Merion Police Department and his staff believe that answers to many questions can be found in data and by benchmarking that data. Thoroughly analyzing data can also show you where you have problems or areas that need to be looked at in-depth. Lower Merion's newest data tool does just that.
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The police worked with Associate Professor Kim A. Logio, Ph.D., who chairs Saint Joseph's University's Department of Sociology. Logio teaches the research methods and courses required of all criminal justice and sociology majors, and she is an expert in law enforcement data. Her experience has helped the department look and analyzes new data sets.
"LMPD is definitely in the forefront of thinking about these issues proactively," said Dr. Logio. The statistical data in the report will allow the police to look at factors other than race. That other data will help the Lower Merion's Police Commanders when assigning and deploying officers patrol assignments. "The race-ethnicity of drivers is one factor, but there are so many others that require consideration when examining traffic stops, said Dr. Logio. "By working with academic researchers at Saint Joseph's University, the LMPD will be able to complete a detailed and statistically significant study of the work of police officers in the community."
Over the last few years, the LMPD has been working on an initiative to capture and analyze officers' interactions with the public regarding motor vehicle stops by the police. Dr. Logio was instrumental in assisting the police on their journey.
Last year, the LMPD stopped 12,230 vehicles for various infractions of the motor vehicle laws. The department's website provides that statistical information, which is available to anyone from the public to review, so they can see the make-up of who is being stopped.
Besides showing the demographics of who is being stopped, the data goes even further and tells you how many of those stopped were actually issued citations versus those that were warned and sent on their way without a citation and its associated costs and fines.
Credit: Information courtesy of LMPD.
A quick look at the numbers can be deceiving. Black people were stopped 34.88 percent of the time, based on the total 12,230 LMPD traffic stops, yet they make up just 5.5 percent of Lower Merion's population, according to the latest 2010 census. So doesn't that show a problem?
"No," says Captain Frank Thomas, who oversaw the project from start to finish. "First, if you compare the number of citations issued for blacks versus whites, if a problem existed, there would be a large disparity between those numbers, and there isn't," explains Thomas. The disparity between white and black was barely registered 0.5 percent difference.
Almost 71 percent of people stopped for vehicle violations do not live within the confines of Lower Merion Township. These non-residents received warnings 76 percent of the time. Lower Merion borders Philadelphia's Wynnefield and Overbrook sections, where the black population comprise a majority of the residents.
Wynnefield's last census data showed a black population of 79.1 percent of 41,172 people and where Overbrook holds 29,883 people of which 84.5 percent are black. Lower Merion's total population is almost equal to the black population of these two areas.
Thomas cites the data and invokes the term "under the veil of darkness." He points out that traffic stops that are made when it is dark out and the officer can't see who they are stopping would show different patterns from stops made during the day when drivers can easily be seen.
Thomas's benchmark data compare daytime traffic stops with stops made after dark, and the results are dramatic.
In 2018, the LMPD made 8,143 daytime traffic stops where whites accounted for 59 percent of those stops, and blacks accounted for 32 percent. Those numbers changed during the "veil of darkness," aka nighttime stops.
Nighttime stops in 2018 totaled 4,087, and whites accounted for 51 percent of those stops, while blacks accounted for 40 percent.
Using the "veil of darkness" as a comparison benchmark, the data strongly suggests that officers from the LMPD are not targeting people of color. In fact, an argument could be made that police in Lower Merion are less likely to stop people of color during daylight hours.
According to PennDOT data, more than 249,000 cars snake out across the state highways within Lower Merion's borders. Add to that the 204.9 miles of Township roads and 26.1 miles of private roads, and you can see there is a lot of traffic in Lower Merion. The highways owned by the State of Pennsylvania are managed by PennDOT, which is the state department of transportation.
Lower Merion's roads are not included in the daily car count provided by the state. Sufficient to say there are a lot of cars traveling the highways and byways in Lower Merion, and while you need to watch your speed and overall driving ability, you need not worry about your skin color.
Over the next few months, the data team from LMPD and the researchers from St. Joseph's will be working together to see how they can put the collected data to good use.
"I am very proud of this work and am honored to be part of the partnership between Saint Joseph's University and the Lower Merion Police Department," said Dr. Logio.
You can find a link to the LMPD data here.
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