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Your View: Pa. wants to exempt racial data on traffic stops from the right-to-know law. That defeats that purpose of the law.

A Pennsylvania law intended to strengthen a ban on texting while driving requires gather data on people pulled over for the offense, including race. An amendment to the law would exempt that information from the state's right-to-know law. Andrey Popov / iStockphoto
A Pennsylvania law intended to strengthen a ban on texting while driving requires gather data on people pulled over for the offense, including race. An amendment to the law would exempt that information from the state’s right-to-know law. Andrey Popov / iStockphoto
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By Victoria Wrigley, of the Lehigh Valley Justice Institute

In the ongoing fight for transparency, accountability and justice, Pennsylvania’s right-to-know law is an invaluable tool for the public to access government records and hold governing agencies responsible. However, a recent bill that would exempt racial data in traffic stops from the right-to-know law — with only a single organization allowed to produce an aggregate report — significantly undermines these principles.

As chief data scientist for the Lehigh Valley Justice Institute, this provision invites my comment and critique. Such transparency is not only integral to the law’s mission but also crucial for protecting marginalized Pennsylvanians, especially from the hands of the institutions that are supposed to protect us. Racial data must be included in the RTK law because its omission is dangerous, misleading and oppressive.

There is no apparent reason to exempt racial traffic stop data from RTK, which was added to a measure intended to crack down on texting while driving. The requirement for racial (and other demographic) data was added in the state House — intended to make sure it wasn’t used to unfairly target minorities — while the limits on who can access the law was added by the state Senate.

First, this data is essential to the law’s mission. The law is designed to promote government accountability, and nowhere is this more necessary than for police contact data. The historical oppression of law enforcement on communities of color necessitates that racial data of police contact be accessible to enforce accountability.

Second, to the best of my knowledge, Pennsylvania has never exempted racial data from the RTK law before. The races and ethnicities of drivers do not meet any of the criteria that the law shields from the public. Its release would not jeopardize privacy or safety. It is a public record for all other open-records offices, including schools, county governments and courts. This would set a dangerous precedent for future bills to protect the interests of these agencies instead of the people they are supposed to serve.

While aggregate statistics like averages and rates are useful and necessary, they only provide a summarized account of the data and result in vital information being lost. For example, if a teacher only considered an exam’s average score, one child’s poor performance might be hidden and prevent them from receiving help!

It’s the same with police interaction data: Averages might make it seem like there is no racial prejudice in traffic stops, but an individual analysis may reveal inequity in smaller areas. State police partner with the National Policing Institute to produce annual reports on their traffic stops that report these aggregates. While the NPI’s report contains robust and detailed investigations into racial bias, limiting access to aggregates erases some of the experiences of individual communities that cannot investigate the situation for themselves. Without access to individual-level data, we will never know what is lost amongst the averages.

Confining the public’s access to racial data to one set of aggregate numbers with analyses and opinions from one organization not only results in information loss, but also blocks additional analyses. Regardless of their execution and comprehensiveness, the NPI’s reports simply cannot include every single analysis that may be of interest.

For example, the report does not include a spatial analysis investigating clustering of stops by driver race to question if certain neighborhoods may be more heavily policed than others. Three studies conducted in 2003, ’09 and ’16 that relied on individual-level data found racial profiling in traffic stops (see the reports at ). Barring us from individual-level data forbids us from researching race-based phenomena that the report may have missed. This conveniently protects these institutions from criticism and tolerates policies that continue to oppress marginalized groups.

One report is nowhere near a satisfactory academic investigation. A collection of projects strengthens insights, refines theories and expands understanding by filling in the gaps from prior work. Restricting analysis to one group’s perspective muzzles the voices of other researchers, organizations and the public, which may reach different conclusions than the ones presented in the NPI’s reports.

NPI’s reports are of great worth to Pennsylvanians, but there must be opportunity for more. With this data unavailable, additional research is forbidden. Study replicability is destroyed. Bias mitigation is swept under the rug. It is unethical by academic standards, and Pennsylvanians will suffer from the lack of data transparency.

The exemption of racial data from the right-to-know law undermines the transparency, accountability and justice that the law is designed to uphold. The absence of this data not only cripples our understanding of racial disparities but also stifles the potential for comprehensive research and policy reform.

Aggregate statistics, while useful, are insufficient in capturing the nuanced experiences of individuals and communities. A single report or perspective is not enough.

The call, therefore, is not just for data transparency but for a commitment to justice and equity. Take out this provision. Let’s not shy away from the uncomfortable realities that such data may reveal. Instead, let’s use it as a tool for change, a beacon guiding us toward a more just and equitable society.

Victoria Wrigley of Bath is the chief data scientist for the Lehigh Valley Justice Institute, a nonprofit dedicated to academic research on criminal justice issues.

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