In the wake of nationwide protests about racism and police brutality, the Brookhaven Police Department created a “Transparency Project” campaign that included publicizing arrest and use-of-force statistics by race. But the arrest statistics gave an unclear picture because BPD only reported Hispanic arrestees as White, a choice the department made despite the city’s large Hispanic population.

BPD this year requires officers to record whether a person is “Hispanic” or “non-Hispanic” in arrests, which shows that Hispanic people are overrepresented in arrests compared to the city’s population. BPD’s explanation for the lack of the ethnicity category until this year was that state reporting guidelines didn’t have it, either, though local departments have always had the option to report ethnicity.

Brookhaven covers part of the famous Buford Highway immigrant corridor, home to a large Hispanic population as well as the BPD headquarters. Experts say that such variations in reporting are a common problem in arrest and use-of-force statistics.

BPD has arrested 1,706 people in 2020 as of Sept. 30, according to data provided through an open records request. A majority of the White arrestees identified as Hispanic.

Of the 986 White people arrested in 2020 as of Sept. 30, 63% identified as Hispanic and 32% did not, according to police data.

For 2019 and earlier years, BPD only recorded race. Of the 3,066 arrests in 2019, about 61% of people arrested were White, 38% Black and 1% other, according to BPD’s “Transparency Project” report.

That data does not give any information about arrests of Hispanic people, though Hispanic people make up 23% of the city’s population, according to U.S. Census estimates for 2019. White people are about 58% of the population, Black 10%, Asian 6% and other 6%.

Hispanic people made up 37% of total arrests in 2020 as of Sept. 30.

In the arrest data from 2019 and earlier, spokesperson Lt. David Snively said, Hispanic people are considered “White.” But officers record race by their perception of a person’s skin color, Snively said, and do not ask a person their race.

Officers are now required to ask a person if they identify as Hispanic. Hispanic is defined as “a person of Cuban, Mexican, Puerto Rico, South or Central American, or other Spanish culture regardless of race,” Snively said.

When BPD transitioned to an updated crime-reporting system at the end of last year, it started keeping track of ethnicity as well, according to Snively.

“We decided to enforce ethnicity as a required field for our officers to include because we recognized that it would improve the quality of our reporting through increased precision of the data,” Snively said.

Inconsistent record-keeping

The department has a different demographic breakdown for its use of force reports from 2019 and earlier, which does include a “Hispanic” category.

The use-of-force reports are created by the department without using state or national guidelines, Snively said, which is why it has included an ethnic breakdown for at least the last four years.

Of the 2019 arrests, officers used force in 251 incidents, according to the “Transparency Project” report. About 19% of incidents involved White people, 35% Hispanic, 44% Black, 1% Asian and 2% other, according to the report.

The different categories make it difficult to compare the arrest and use-of-force reports and analyze trends of possible racial or ethnic bias.

Snively said any racial or ethnic bias in use-of-force incidents are analyzed on a case-by-case basis, and only looking at the data does not show the circumstances of each use-of-force incident.

“People who do not resist lawful arrest or offer violence towards police officers are least likely to have force presented or used against them, irrespective of their race or ethnicity,” Snively said.

Inconsistent data-keeping is common in and across police departments, said Josh Hinkle, a criminology professor at Georgia State University.

“From my research work, what I can say is that race and ethnicity is very often recorded by police departments and other agencies in ways that make it difficult to disentangle in analyses,” Hinkle said. “Ideally, they would be captured through separate measures.”

Starting this year, ethnicity and race are in separate reports, Snively said. Ethnicity will have the categories “Hispanic” and “non-Hispanic,” and race will be reported as “Black, White, Asian, Indian and other.”

State crime-reporting guidelines

BPD did not have a reason why officers were not required to record a person’s ethnicity before 2020 other than the state crime-reporting guidelines.

Local departments submit crime statistics to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, which then gives them to the FBI with the idea that researchers, law enforcement officers and members of the media would have consistent data to compare across departments.

The FBI and state agencies are transitioning to a new crime-reporting system called the National Incident-Based Reporting System, which has guidelines on how to submit crime reports. Georgia transitioned to that system in October 2019, said Crystal Lockhart, a crime analyst with the GBI.

Neither the NIBRS nor the former crime-reporting system requires ethnicity to be recorded, Lockhart said, but it has always been an optional field. Age, sex and race are required.

Snively said the BPD changed to the NIBRS at the end of 2019. The transition to the new reporting system caused the department to start recording ethnicity, despite it not being a national requirement.

“We did proactively and progressively recognize that ethnicity was an optional data element and voluntarily decided to mandate the collection of that data by our officers,” Snively said. “I expect this will distinguish us from many other agencies around the country to provide the most robots and informative description of our police-citizen encounters.”

The federal Office of Management and Budget, which oversees federal agencies and administers the budget, creates the guidelines used to classify race and ethnicity.

The OMB has five minimum categories for race — American Indian or Alaska Native; Asian; Black; Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander; and White. The minimum categories for ethnicity are “Hispanic or Latino” and “not Hispanic or Latino.”