The King County Sheriff’s Office collects racial data on only about 4% of its service calls, a new audit found, but when data is collected, Black people are more likely to be arrested and more likely to be subject to the use of force by officers.
White officers in the Sheriff’s Office were more than twice as likely to use force than Black and Asian officers, says the King County Auditor’s Office report, which covers 2019 to 2021.
But in the vast majority of calls for service, sheriff’s deputies do not collect data on the race of people they interact with. There are several reasons for this, but the primary one is simple: The computer dispatch system that officers use to record information about calls does not have a field to note the race of people who are stopped.
The racial data that the auditor’s office was able to glean about calls for service came from cross-referencing calls with separate systems that track arrests and uses of force.
“Data show concerning racial disparities in uses of force and arrests in King County, similar to disparities other jurisdictions are finding,” said King County Auditor Kymber Waltmunson. She added that the Sheriff’s Office agreed with the auditor’s recommendations, largely around improving data collection.
The sheriff’s office said it is beginning the process of getting a new computer dispatch system, but it will depend on “system requirements and budget.”
A second auditor’s report, on traffic stops by the Sheriff’s Office, also found racial data lacking, but found that white officers were 2.5 times more likely to use force against Black drivers than drivers of other races. Although safety is the primary reason cited for traffic stops, it found the Sheriff’s Office doesn’t assess whether traffic stops are improving safety or whether there are disparities in how officers conduct stops.
Sheriff Patti Cole-Tindall said she agreed that racial disparities “exist in the criminal legal system, in King County and throughout our country.”
She noted that there were more than 1 million calls for service in the time period covered and force was used in 619 of them, or about 0.06%, calling it “an infinitesimal amount of use of force.”
King County Executive Dow Constantine, who chose Cole-Tindall as sheriff earlier this year, said this year marks a “new chapter” for the department.
“These two audits show exactly what anyone paying attention to race in America would expect: Unacceptable racial disparities persist in the criminal legal system, and that is true in King County government just as it is across our nation,” Constantine said. “It is King County’s mission to confront and eliminate these disparities, starting with reviewing policies, procedures, and training.”
A Constantine spokesperson said he expected they’d have more details on the sheriff’s “changes and restructure plans” in the next few weeks.
Dwight Dively, Constantine’s chief operating officer, wrote in an official response to the audit that “data limitations and the excluding of incident context mean further analysis is needed.”
Dively wrote that the recommendation of adding race to the computer dispatch system is “reasonable,” but “no single system will be able to provide all the necessary data to understand the demographics of calls for service.”
Part of the auditor’s office work plan is monitoring “emerging issues in law enforcement,” and the two audits were launched under that umbrella, given the county’s new switch to an appointed, rather than elected, sheriff.
The Sheriff’s Office responds to about 350,000 calls for service a year, including 911 calls and calls initiated by officers.
King County Code may also limit officers’ ability to collect racial data, the audit found, a result of a 2018 county law that sought to make sure county data and resources weren’t used to assist federal immigration enforcement and deportations.
The audit recommended that the Metropolitan King County Council consider amending the law to make clear that the Sheriff’s Office can collect race data.
The audit also found that officers were sometimes concerned they couldn’t correctly identify a person’s race. But, the audit found, an officer’s perception of a person’s race is still important, “because any implicit or explicit bias would be based on that perception.”
The audit found that officers used force against Hispanic people 50% more often than against people of all races, accounting for population, and against Black people 29% more often. White people were 34% less likely to experience use of force by a sheriff’s department officer than people of all other races.
Some of the use-of-force disparities increased when the race of the officer, as well as the race of the person, was taken into account.
“White officers used force around 75% more frequently against Black people
than officers in other racial groups,” the audit found.