Urbana Task Force could see success with more representative information

By Daily Illini Editorial Board

Numbers can be misleading. Without the proper context, a figure could be mathematically correct but not representative of the information you are trying to present. Sometimes misrepresentation is a mistake, but, other times, it may be deliberate.

A wariness for statistical figures ran through the Urbana City Council when it was discussing the development of a task force, which would examine racial disparities in traffic stops. For nearly a decade, the city has collected and examined information regarding what many believe to be a disproportionate number of stops for minorities.

And after the Illinois Department of Transportation handed down its report in 2012 that asserted Urbana was stopping a higher percentage of minorities, Mayor Laurel Prussing was not convinced of the report’s veracity. She considered the data a tool, rather than an accurate gauge.

In December, council member Charlie Smyth agreed: “People are convinced already without having a formal experiment to base it on. No one has done an extensive, categorical data analysis with controlling for a number of factors on this data.”

They were rightfully skeptical because the census data used by IDOT considers the entire State to compute the percentages may not accurately represent the proportion of minorities living in Urbana. To see if Urbana really is unfairly pulling over minorities, the council voted to establish a task force to better examine the data.

But even with the task force, it’s possible the results turn to be inconclusive. To boost the chance of the task force’s success, it must work to ensure that clerical errors do not happen, as they had in earlier years when collecting the data, according to Urbana Chief of Police Patrick Connolly.

Because the task force is also supposed to bring transparency to the process, it must work to encourage community members to come forward and share their experiences. Without the context of their stories, we can’t know if new data will accurately reflect the traffic stops that happen. Establishing a complete and representative data set for analysis necessitates as much anecdotal context that can be obtained.

Given the length of time that the city has spent trying to follow up on the traffic stops, some may have come to assume that minorities are stopped in a greater proportion.

While we hope that there is no discrimination, we cannot know that based on assumptions and one or two studies alone: We need a complete portfolio of evidence that proves beyond a reasonable doubt that the Urbana Police Department needs reform.

Members of the Urbana City Council were right to question the statistics, but if the next step of gathering more local data is not carried out objectively and precisely, it could be years before we know the truth.

And the truth isn’t something the minorities in the Urbana community should keep waiting for to spark constructive change.