Watchdog group questions Duluth police disparity report – and receives letter from lawyer

DULUTH — There are racial disparities in arrests and use of force by the Duluth Police Department, but the numbers used to prove it caused a public rift this week among local law enforcement watchdogs and data collectors hired by the police department.

Duluth’s Law Enforcement Accountability Network (LEAN) responded to a recent report by Seattle-based Police Strategies LLC this week with an analysis that questioned the company’s methodology and ethics and raised concerns about track record of co-founder Bob Scales, who presented the data at a public forum in late March. The department hired Police Strategies in response to a call from the Duluth branch of the NAACP, which told law enforcement officials to end oppression in law enforcement.

“There is a real danger with data because it has the power to both inform and mislead,” said Jamey Sharp of LEAN.

A lawyer from Scales and Police Strategies sent LEAN an email accusing the group of volunteers of making false and defamatory statements, and threatened to take legal action against the organization.

“To be clear, we are not questioning your right to challenge the methodology, conclusions, or ultimately the ‘credibility’ of the Policing Strategies Report,” wrote the attorney, Carl J. Marquardt. “These are matters on which reasonable people can agree, and Mr. Scales welcomes further discussion and reasoned dialogue on these points. But to assert that someone is ‘unethical’, simply because that you disagree with him, is unfair – and in this case, wrong.”

LEAN subsequently modified some of the terms of its analysis, at least twice removing the word “ethics” from the report.

In a quick Zoom press conference on Wednesday afternoon, Scales highlighted his credentials — including a law degree from Washington University School of Law, formal training in statistics, and working with 90 law enforcement agencies in eight states.

It’s been just over a year since LEAN released a report finding that half of citizens involved in use-of-force incidents that year were people of color, even though non-white residents make up just 10 % of city population. At the time, the Duluth branch of the NAACP told the police department that it expected to see numbers commensurate with racial demographics in that area by December 2022.

Police Strategies, presented at a public forum in Duluth in late March, offered a 172-page report accompanied by a PowerPoint presentation, much of which explains its methodology. When reporting racial disparities in the use of force, for example, it starts with arrests: Black and Native Americans who are under arrest are twice as likely to be involved in a use-of-force incident. to force than white citizens.

At least a third of Scales’ nearly two-hour presentation in March focused on using activity-based benchmarks rather than population. Population is the traditional method, he says, but less accurate.

“For population benchmarks to be valid, we have to make a lot of assumptions,” Scales explained. “We have to assume that all members of the population commit crimes at the same rate.”

The Police Strategies report found that blacks and Native Americans are nine times more likely to be identified as subjects in reported crimes than you might expect based on their percentage of the local population. Whites and Asians are less likely to be reported, by 40% and 70% respectively.

The report shows disparities, Scales said, but does not show why they exist.

Sharp said one of the reasons LEAN released its analysis was to create a public record of its displeasure with the methods of Police Strategies and the company’s founders, both of whom have a background in the police domain. Scales worked alongside the Seattle Police Department as a compliance officer, according to his LinkedIn profile, and his partner Mike Sanford served as deputy chief of the same department.

LEAN’s timing with his analysis was helpful. The city is finding a group to conduct a racial bias audit.

“It’s important for us to show what could happen if the community isn’t properly involved in the process,” Sharp said.

Jennifer C. Burleigh