Fort Worth

Is Fort Worth dealing with racial inequality when it comes to arrests and the courts?

Black and Hispanic Fort Worth residents are disproportionately more likely to be arrested than whites, according to an independent study and, while city officials acknowledge racial disparities, a staff evaluation indicates the report relied on incomplete data.

Regardless, more action is needed to address racial disparity in Fort Worth, leaders said.

A team from the National League of Cities last year studied city data primarily from the police department and municipal court system and found evidence of potential patterns of racial inequalities. The Washington, D.C.-based advocacy organization was invited by the city in 2017 to study race relations in Fort Worth.

Among the findings:

Blacks are disproportionately more likely to be assessed fines and fees.

Blacks and Hispanics are more likely to be arrested than whites.

A disproportionate use of force by white police officers.

A higher rate of police searches of black and Hispanic people.

Attention from the city can’t come soon enough, said councilwoman Kelly Allen Gray, who has urged the city to move quickly to tackle racial disparities, beginning by addressing the points in the report, which also concluded the city should track more demographic information about the people it serves.

“These disparities do exist,” Gray said. “You are being bias, so how do you fix that?”

The Rev. Kyev Tatum, a Fort Worth pastor and activist, said he had grown tired of reports saying what black residents have long known — racial inequity exists across the city.

“This is 2019. These are debates and conversations we’ve been having since the 1980s and ‘90s,” he said. “We need to stop studying it and take care of our community.”

About 40 percent of the city’s residents identify as white only, 35 percent identify as Hispanic or Latino and 19 percent are black, according to the U.S. Census. In the central police division, for instance, blacks made up 40 percent of the arrests in 2017, according to the report.

“You can’t change a culture if you don’t address it, and we do not address the culture inside the walls here at City Hall,” Gray said during a March 5 council work session.

Deborah Peoples, a candidate for Fort Worth mayor, echoed Tatum and said the study shed no new light on equality in the city.

“These issues have existed forever,” she said. “Now we have to act on it.”

A Fort Worth police spokesman said Police Chief Joel Fitzgerald was unavailable for comment. Asked if someone else from the department could comment on the report, the spokesman said he would look into it, but no one from the department got back to the Star-Telegram.

Assistant city manager Fernando Costa said there is ”no question broad racial disparities” exist in Fort Worth. But when the city assessed the study, it found it was incomplete or relied on different metrics than Fort Worth uses, he said.

The city is making a concerted effort to address equity in Fort Worth, Costa said. That will begin in part with the hiring of a “chief diversity officer,” someone tasked with helping the city avoid discrimination. City manager David Cooke told the City Council in early March all of the Race and Culture Task Force’s recommendations should be adopted, including the creation of a civilian police oversight board and the use of a civilian police monitor.

“I think you can expect to see much greater attention to diversity,” Costa said.

Costa and city staff have been briefing council members on the report ahead of a series of work sessions beginning in April that will focus on task force recommendations.

“I believe there are items that warrant further consideration and exploration,” Mayor Betsy Price said. “We plan to incorporate pieces of the NLC report with recommendations identified in the Race and Culture Task Force’s report.”

Costa was cautious about drawing conclusions directly from the report because it lacked context, he said. In most cases, the city disputed findings, following its own research or suggesting more investigation was needed.

The National League of Cities acknowledged in the report that it lacked adequate data to establish patterns of discrimination and said the report was not intended as a comprehensive assessment.

For instance, the study found a high number of white officers were using force, but that may be because more than 65 percent of the police force is white, according to the city’s review. The city continues to make efforts to diversify the force, Costa said.

For criminal charges and use of force incidents, the city tracks by individual, a standard that meets the National Incident-Based Reporting System guidelines. So if an officer uses a TASER and pepper spray on one person, the city tracks it as one use-of-force incident. The League of Cities would count that as two uses of force.

In the case of an arrest, the city would count the incident once, even if the suspect faces multiple charges. Again, the League of Cities would count each charge separately.

Costa said the city must begin to address key questions. One of those is whether it should better track demographics.

The study looked at police and court demographics largely because those agencies track things like race or gender. But that information is not gathered when someone gets a library card or calls about a pothole, so the city can’t say whether it is providing equitable services.

More than half of city departments told the League of Cities they don’t track demographic information or use data to determine if they’ve met racial equity goals.

“We need to answer to what extent we should be collecting,” Costa said. “We don’t want anybody to think we’re Big Brother trying to learn more about them than we have a right to know.”

Councilman Brian Byrd, who represents a diverse section of west Fort Worth that includes the Las Vegas Trail area, said the city could use this data to fix disparities. The first step would be with the chief diversity officer and a civilian monitor for police, he said. The diversity officer will be crucial to forming equity policies and crafting future diversity training.

“We are such a diverse, big city,” he said. “It’s healthy, it’s great, but it’s something we have to steward well. Having someone help us steward would be great.”

Tatum however remained skeptical.

“We’ve been singing the same songs,” Tatum said. “Yes we know we need to diversify. We know we need more training. Until there’s an incentive or a penalty for not doing it, it’s all talk.”

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