Blacks in two of Nebraska's largest metro areas continue to be stopped by police at roughly twice the rate of their percentage of the local population, according to a yearly crime report released Tuesday.
The findings closely resemble last year's numbers, which also showed blacks were stopped in disproportionate numbers relative to how many live in those areas.
Blacks accounted for 21.9 percent of drivers stopped by Omaha police last year, even though they represent 12.2 percent of the city's population. They made up for 8.7 percent of drivers stopped in Lincoln, although they comprise 3.3 percent of the city's population.
Nebraska Crime Commission executive director Michael Behm cautioned that the numbers by themselves may not indicate racial profiling. The commission compiles the data from local agencies, but does not analyze what is causing the trend. For instance, the numbers may reflect increased patrols in neighborhoods with large minority populations.
Behm said the report was intended for use by local law enforcement agencies.
"This is a good snapshot of what's going on with traffic stops across Nebraska," Behm said. "But it's summary data. We only require summary data be collected. It's no way to track any individual instance, or to get to a granular level of analysis."
Lincoln public safety director Tom Casady said the department uses its local traffic data in its officer training, partly to initiate a discussion about racial profiling in law enforcement.
"I'm probably one of the few law enforcement executives around Nebraska that would I say I really do believe racial profiling occurs because of bias," Casady said. "I just think that's a very small, almost minute part of the total explanation of the disparities."
Casady noted that law enforcement officers tend to work in greater concentrations in high-crime neighborhoods often plagued by poverty.
"It makes perfect sense to have more police assigned in areas where you might have a more diverse population," he said. "But that has the unintended side effect of making your expired plate more obvious."
Casady said the numbers also may reflect the larger prevalence of poverty among motorists who are stopped. In many cases, he said, motorists may get stopped because they can't afford to renew their license plates or registration tags.
An Omaha police spokesman said he had reached out to Chief Todd Schmaderer to respond to the state report, but he wasn't sure he would get a response on Tuesday.
Civil liberties advocates said they remained concerned that the disparity has remained relatively stable over the last few years.
"This data collection has demonstrated very little movement toward improvement," said Becki Brenner, executive director of ACLU of Nebraska. "A tool is only as good as what you use it for. Our hope is that any data collection that is done can be used for sensitivity training" and other efforts to reduce racial profiling.
Brenner said the disparity likely extended beyond race. Her group is supporting a bill now in the Legislature that would continue the data collection until Jan. 1, 2018. The crime commission is slated to stop collecting information on Jan. 1, 2014, because of a sunset provision in an earlier law.
The statewide breakdown of traffic stops by race is roughly in line with Nebraska's demographic makeup based on the latest census data, Behm said.
Law enforcement agencies initiated 505,481 stops in 2012, a decline from the previous year in which 515,390 were stopped. Behm said 483,268 motorists were stopped in 2009. Fifteen stops this year resulted in complaints, Behm said, but all of the officers involved were either cleared of wrongdoing, or the cases were deemed unsubstantiated.
Nebraska has required law enforcement agencies to collect and report profiling data since 2001, when the state banned racial profiling. The commission's annual report offers a snapshot of the traffic stops, but doesn't analyze the statistics.
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