Chief Frank Fowler Makes Request for Second Study on Racial Profiling

The city of Syracuse and the Syracuse Police Department will be releasing separate studies that examine the extent of racial profiling in the community.

A co-author of the city study, economist Shawn Rohlin, said he was insulted that the police chief had commissioned a separate study of his own — saying it was “complete ridiculousness.”

Chief Frank Fowler disagreed with the results of a study released in 2006, by the same team of researchers, and defended his decision to commission his own study for 2010.  “There’s nothing wrong with having a second opinion,” he said.

Both studies are completed and ready to be presented to the mayor, and then to the public, but a date has not been set, both Rohlin and Fowler said.

In 2006, the city commissioned William Horrace, an economics professor and researcher at Syracuse University, to investigate racial profiling in Syracuse using data provided by the police department. Rohlin, who was a Ph.D economics student at the time, and diversity expert David Toulin, worked alongside Horrace in 2006. The same team of experts also worked on the 2010 report, which includes data collected from 2006 to 2009. For both 2006 and 2010, Horrace, Rohlin and Toulin investigated the number of discretionary stops and arrests made by Syracuse police officers and evaluated whether officers discriminated against African-Americans.

Before 2006, the only research on racial profiling in Syracuse was commissioned by the city and conducted by a professor at Le Moyne College in 2004. However, both the police department and the SU research team dismissed his results because he failed to distinguish between stops and arrests made “on-call” or on a “discretionary” basis.

When a police officer makes an “on-call” stop or arrest, he is responding to calls made by citizens to the police station to handle a situation, Fowler said. “Discretionary” stops or arrests are made when an officer is patrolling a neighborhood or makes a decision to stop an individual without an order from the police station or request from a citizen.

Both Fowler’s and the city’s 2010 studies evaluate the number of discretionary stops and arrests Syracuse police officers made from 2006 to 2009.

In his 2006 study, Horrace found that African-Americans, 27 percent of Syracuse’s total population in 2006, comprised 54 percent of all police stops, while whites, 65 percent of the population, accounted for 39 percent of stops. In combination with other findings, Horrace and his team determined that racial profiling did exist and issued a series of recommendations for the police department, including continued data collection for future racial profiling studies and use of the study’s results in developing police force training. All five of the study’s recommendations were implemented according to the police chief, although he says he did not agree with the results of the study.

In response, Fowler approached the John F. Finn Institute For Public Safety in 2010 to conduct a parallel study using the same data.

“If there’s an issue at the police department we want to know about it so that we can fix it. But I want an accurate picture, too,” he said.

The John F. Finn Institute for Public Safety was established in 2007 and specializes in social research on public safety and criminal justice, according to its website. “Horrace’s background is in economics or something like that. So I wanted some professionals who have experience to do another study,” Fowler said.

Rohlin responded that economists are leaders in U.S. research on racial profiling. “For data analysis, you need an economist.  All the latest research is done by economists,” he said. “We have become the experts. It’s not abnormal. To be honest, most leading research is done by economists.”

Economists, Rohlin said, cross over between the social sciences and the “hard” sciences such as chemistry, physics and pure mathematics, which rely on quantitative analysis to determine the outcome of an experiment. Social sciences often rely on “qualitative” analysis — interviews and first-hand accounts from human subjects, rather than numbers.

Rohlin said he did not understand the delay in releasing the two studies this year.

“We would be happy to present this and get it done, but we have no idea at this point when we’ll be able to present it to the city council,” he said in a telephone interview from his office at the University of Akron in Ohio, where he now teaches. Horrace said he was not available for an interview.

In response to the study Fowler commissioned, Rohlin expressed concern about the methodology and objectivity of the John F. Finn Institute.

“We’re not interested in politics. Whatever we find in our study is fine with us, whether we find that racial profiling exists or we find that racial profiling doesn’t exist. I mean Bill (Horrace) is African-American. … The only reason to do another study is because he (Fowler) thinks we’re doing something wrong. I certainly wouldn’t go and do his job, so I don’t understand why he would try to do research,” Rohlin said.

“It’s like he’s trying to build up their defenses, and I don’t even think (the results of) our study are that bad,” he concluded.