Following reports showing that state troopers search black and Latino drivers at higher rates than Anglos, the Texas Department of Public Safety last year promised a broad examination of racial profiling issues and committed to hiring an outside consultant to review its data on traffic stops.
That review, however, is being conducted by an expert handpicked by top DPS officials, who altered the hiring process and avoided a competitive bid, according to internal agency emails obtained by the American-Statesman through a public records request.
DPS Deputy Director Robert “Duke” Bodisch suggested hiring Eric Fritsch, who chairs the Department of Criminal Justice at the University of North Texas, in an August 2016 email that included a bio saying Fritsch is a “former police officer and has worked extensively with law enforcement agencies for the past 20 years.”
“Dr. Fritsch seems to have the credentials, background and experience necessary to conduct an objective review of our data,” Bodisch wrote to David Baker, another DPS deputy director. “Since he is with a state university we should be able to enter into an inter-agency contract instead of a long drawn out solicitation and procurement. Just a thought.”
“Sounds promising. We’ll look into it,” Baker replied.
DPS has never disciplined an officer for racial profiling. The agency’s commitment to more fully examine racial profiling issues was prompted in large part by the research of Frank Baumgartner, a University of North Carolina professor who analyzed DPS data and found wide disparities in how often troopers search motorists of different racial groups. Baumgartner worked with the American-Statesman on an investigation last year that found that 35 percent of Texas’ more than 1,100 state troopers search minority drivers at least twice as often as they do white drivers.
“We’re going to commission someone to look at the data in more detail,” DPS Director Steve McCraw said after being questioned by state lawmakers about Baumgartner’s findings. “And when I say in more detail, it means all minorities, it means all demographics across the state, and it includes gender. We want to make sure we look at all of it to see if there’s any disparities and address it.”
Baumgartner said he’s unfamiliar with Fritsch’s work but is sometimes skeptical of research commissioned by police agencies.
“There is a community of consultants who are interested in protecting the reputations of police departments,” Baumgartner said. “You can really tell what the incentive is if you want to keep the contracts coming.”
Baumgartner said he does not work for the agencies he studies. “There’s no financial relationship whatsoever with anyone involved in my research, and I think that’s the definition of independence,” he said.
Fritsch, who did not respond to an interview request from the American-Statesman, is regularly hired by smaller police departments to conduct staffing analyses and to produce required annual reports on racial profiling. A page on the University of North Texas website advertising Fritsch’s services says reports “generally cost $1,500.”
In 2015, a Midland City Council member questioned whether a Fritsch report that found the city’s police department does not engage in racial profiling fully addressed the issue.
“Racial profiling is narrowly defined. It’s only when a citation is issued or an arrest made. So it doesn’t take into consideration all those times that people were stopped and a citation was not issued and an arrest not made,” Council Member John B. Love III said. “We might want to look at possible surveys from citizens on how they feel they are being treated. I can tell you the results would be alarming.”
DPS spokesman Tom Vinger said Fritsch is a “highly qualified and experienced expert in racial profiling studies.”
“It was important to enlist the services of someone in academia who has a demonstrated expertise and impeccable credentials in conducting comprehensive data analyses of police traffic stop data to detect racial profiling,” Vinger wrote in an email. “It was also important for the expert to fully understand law enforcement protocols and national best practices, and be capable of assessing an agency’s existing internal controls to prevent biased-based policing.”
A September 2016 planning document shows that the agency originally planned to issue a request for proposals, the first step in a competitive bidding process. But after Bodisch’s suggestion, the agency instead entered into a $194,000 nine-month inter-agency agreement with Fritsch and his team of UNT researchers that began in December 2016.
“DPS has the authority to contract directly with a state institution of higher education for subject matter expertise and services, which saves both time and taxpayer dollars,” Vinger said. “Contracts awarded under the Interagency Cooperation Act are exempt from the competitive procurement process.”
The contract includes money for the researchers to present their work to the Legislature, but Fritsch, whose contract goes through Aug. 31, hasn’t yet completed his work and or shared it with state lawmakers.
Rep. Garnet Coleman, who chairs a House committee that has looked into Baumgartner’s research, said he would have preferred for DPS to include researchers from different backgrounds in the project by including Baumgartner or another expert without police ties.
“They could’ve brought both of them in to provide a more balanced analysis that wouldn’t be tainted or biased,” said Coleman, D-Houston. “I wish that it had been done with a search outside of Texas, too, to add more eyes to the study. That would make for a better outcome than to self-select.”
Sen. Sylvia Garcia, D-Houston, said it is the right time for a deep dive on racial profiling in Texas due to the passage of Senate Bill 4, the new law banning so-called sanctuary cities that decline in some way to assist federal immigration enforcement. Democrats and immigrant advocates contend it will lead to increased racial profiling because it allows all state and local police officers in the state to question the immigration status of pulled-over motorists.
“I just don’t see how you can implement S.B. 4 without racial profiling. We expect it to happen even more,” said Garcia, who chairs the Senate Hispanic Caucus. “I’m glad that they hired someone. It shows that they’re taking some responsibility,”
McCraw has maintained that DPS does not engage in or tolerate racial profiling, which is prohibited by law.
But the agency has been reluctant to acknowledge that the stark disparities between how troopers treat Anglo drivers and minorities are a problem, despite dozens of cases in recent years in which motorists have filed formal complaints. In one 2013 case, the DPS inspector general determined that a trooper had engaged in racial profiling during a traffic stop, but McCraw overturned the decision.
Because disparities in the rates at which minorities are searched exist in jurisdictions across the country, Baumgartner said he hopes that agencies will become less defensive when racial profiling issues arise.
“The racial disparities are not only enormous, but they’re ubiquitous. The Texas DPS is not out of line by national norms, and that should make us all more concerned, not less concerned,” he said. “We shouldn’t be arguing about whether there is a disparity. … Hopefully we’ll move to a new stage of it, which is explaining the disparities and coming up with proposals for how to reduce them.”
What we reported
An American-Statesman review of 14 million Texas Department of Public Safety traffic stops between 2009 and mid-2015 found that 401 troopers had searched Hispanic and African-American motorists at double or more the rate of whites. Yet most — 231 — found contraband on the minorities at lower rates.
After the Statesman analyses, DPS officials said they would begin to regularly review traffic stop data for individual troopers, rather than only for the agency as a whole. The DPS also entered into agreement with the University of North Texas to review the way DPS officials collect and analyze traffic stop data.