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Ohio lawmaker wants law requiring police to record race during traffic stops

Cleveland residents wait to resolve their traffic tickets at Mayor’s Court in the village of Bratenahl on Oct. 11, 2022.
Gus Chan
/
The Marshall Project
A woman is called into Mayor’s Court at Bratenahl Village Hall to answer a traffic citation October 11, 2022.

An Ohio lawmaker says she will introduce legislation requiring police agencies to record race data when making traffic stops, following a Marshall Project - Cleveland investigation into how the village of Bratenahl tickets mostly Black drivers from neighboring Cleveland.

State Rep. Juanita Brent, a Democrat from Cleveland, said the information is needed to determine whether police agencies unfairly stop more Black and Brown drivers compared to White drivers.

The Marshall Project - Cleveland’s investigation noted that 60% or more of drivers cited for traffic violations by Bratenahl police since 2020 were Black.

Brent said she intends to introduce the proposed legislation in January 2023 when the Ohio General Assembly begins its next legislative session.

“The only way we can make systemic change (in policing) is with the data,” Brent told The Marshall Project - Cleveland. “The data has to support what people are saying in public.”

The decision in Ohio to collect race information is made at the local level.

In 2020, New York University’s School of Law’s Policing Project called state laws that require officers to record race data “a gold standard.” As of 2020, the group said only 20 states required the collection.

Bratenahl officers did not record race information in nearly half of all cases between Jan. 1, 2020, and Sept. 15, 2022. After nationwide protests following George Floyd’s murder by a White Minneapolis police officer in May 2020, The Ohio Collaborative — a panel of law enforcement experts and community leaders — established voluntary state standards for use-of-force, body-worn cameras and tracking race data. Bratenahl police sought accreditation from the Ohio Collaborative in the fall of 2020 and started recording race data of drivers during traffic stops soon after.

Kayla S. Griffin, president of the NAACP’s Cleveland branch, said Bratenahl’s ticket practices show the need for collecting race data, adding: “It’s a phenomenal idea. Other states have attacked these issues.”

Not everyone supports law enforcement collecting race data.

Robert Cornwell, executive director of the Buckeye State Sheriffs’ Association, said sheriffs oppose the idea because traffic stops are often adversarial and officers asking for race information could amplify situations.

Lawmakers can solve the issue by passing legislation that would require the Ohio Bureau of Motor Vehicles to make drivers disclose their race when issuing or renewing a driver’s license, he said.

The association, Cornwell said, has asked the Bureau of Motor Vehicles to consider the requirement, but the idea has been met with a “lukewarm reception” the past two years.

Jocelyn Rosnick, policy director at the ACLU of Ohio, said that while data collection is not a panacea for ending systemic racism in policing, it is most certainly a tool to help understand the extent to which Black and Brown communities are targeted and disproportionately impacted through excessive policing.

“The burden should not be on impacted communities, advocates and the media to spend countless hours combing through piecemealed records,” Rosnick said. “Cohesive, statewide data collection on traffic stops would be a step in the right direction — though we know much more would be needed, including rigorous monitoring of this data and meaningful reforms.”

Approximately 3 in 4 of Bratenahl’s 1,400 residents are White. Bratenahl is home to people such as Cleveland Browns football team owners Jimmy and Dee Haslam and Cleveland Cavaliers basketball star Kevin Love. It is surrounded by Cleveland and shares a ZIP code with Glenville, one of Cleveland’s poorest neighborhoods.

Nearly all traffic tickets issued by Bratenahl officers between Jan. 1 and Sept. 15, 2022, went to drivers outside the village, The Marshall Project - Cleveland found. About one-third went to three majority-Black Cleveland neighborhoods: Glenville, North Shore Collinwood and Collinwood-Nottingham.

Over 60% of drivers ticketed in 2022 came from areas with higher poverty rates, lower household income, and larger non-White populations than most Ohio communities.

Cleveland City Councilman Kevin Conwell, who represents the city’s Glenville neighborhood, said he plans to soon meet with Bratenahl Police Chief Charles LoBello to discuss complaints about traffic stops.

LoBello said he requested a meeting with Conwell “to get to know each other.”

Conwell also said he will meet with Cleveland Municipal Court Administrative Judge Michelle Earley to find ways to educate Cleveland drivers on how to request that Bratenahl traffic cases be moved to Cleveland courts.

Ronnie Dunn, executive director of the Diversity Institute at Cleveland State University, said it’s difficult to get statewide support for such collection efforts. He cited the attempts of former state representative Peter Lawson Jones in the late 1990s to get support for a statewide law to prevent racial profiling.

The traffic data should be collected and made public to ensure transparency during police stops. Dunn, also an associate professor of urban studies and public affairs at the university, said Ohio is behind many other states when it comes to legislation requiring the collection of race data by law enforcement.

“I really find it unconscionable that today, in this era of big data, we wouldn’t collect data on all types of police interactions with the public … traffic stops included,” Dunn said.

This article was published in partnership with The Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization covering the U.S. criminal justice system.