A Latino gardener working in a yard. An African-American man selling magazines. These are two examples given by Mill Valley Police Chief Ignacio “Rick” Navarro of calls his department gets from people who are seeing people of color in their neighborhood, assuming the worst, and calling the cops.

Now police in Mill Valley have released a new “bias by proxy” policy intended to raise awareness of potential race-based motivations behind calls for service.

Navarro has promised to work harder to combat implicit bias both in his department and among calls for service, especially after his department released its troubling report on stop data — information gathered when police officers make discretionary stops or respond to dispatched calls for service. The report outlines many disparities along racial lines that people of color face from law enforcement in Mill Valley.

A 2016 California law requires police departments to report their stop data numbers to the state attorney general’s office under the Racial and Identity Profiling Act (RIPA). The aim of RIPA is to increase transparency and accountability from police departments all over the state in an attempt to reduce racially biased policing.

Mill Valley’s report examines July 2021 through April 2022, when the MVPD logged 17,176 stops, or an average of 148 stops per month.

According to police, the vast majority of stops they make are due to traffic violations, comprising 80 percent.

“Reasonable suspicion that the person was engaged in criminal activity” logged in at 18 percent of stops.

Roughly speaking, over all of the stops during that period, 70 percent of people whom police made contact with were white, 15 percent Hispanic or Latino, 5 percent African American or Black, 4.4 percent Asian, and Middle Eastern or South Asian at 4.3 percent, according to Mill Valley Police Capt. Lindsay Haynes.

A chart from the Mill Valley Force for Racial Equity and Empowerment’s report analyzing police detention rates in Mill Valley last year found that Blacks were 6.5 times more likely than whites to be detained. Latinx subjects had a similarly high detainment ratio, more than three times that of whites. (Image courtesy of MVFREE)

Numbers don’t reflect population makeup

When compared to the racial makeup of the town, the numbers show that people of color are disproportionately stopped, with Black people being stopped at a rate 6.5 times higher than whites. Mill Valley is 85 percent white, 1 percent Black, and 3 percent Latino, according to 2021 census numbers.

The Mill Valley City Council spent hours on the RIPA report at its Oct. 3 meeting, with the chief acknowledging that there is room for improvement. Navarro also said that upwards of 15,000 people enter Mill Valley per day from other areas, so comparing city racial data with his department’s stop data isn’t an apples to apples comparison.

“When you use Marin County census data, that [6.5] number drops dramatically,” he said. “It drops to 2.31. If you use the Bay Area census data, that number drops even further to 0.59.”

“Data plainly shows that Black and Latinx people are treated very differently from white people by police in Mill Valley. Race powerfully affects who gets detained in Mill Valley and how a person is treated during police detention.”

Tammy Edmondson, MVFREE

Navarro also said the data shown in the RIPA report puts Mill Valley’s numbers below the state’s average when compared to Marin County census data as a whole.

Representatives from the local organization Mill Valley Force for Racial Equity and Empowerment (MVFREE) were invited to share at the meeting and provided different perspectives and also a deeper reading into the statistics from the RIPA report.

Tammy Edmondson of MVFREE has worked closely with the Police Department, she said, but provided a more stark reading of the numbers to the council.

“Data plainly shows that Black and Latinx people are treated very differently from white people by police in Mill Valley,” she said. “Race powerfully affects who gets detained in Mill Valley and how a person is treated during police detention.”

She agreed that Mill Valley has thousands of visitors every day, but questioned how much the influx affects the police stop numbers, as the chief expressed.

“Let’s be clear. The daily flood of Black and brown visitors that would be required to catch up to the Mill Valley detention rates is mathematically implausible and completely at odds with what we see every day with our own eyes,” Edmondson said.

Of the 15,000 daily visitors, Mill Valley would need to see 22 percent of the county’s Black population come to town to catch up to those disparities, she said.

‘Suspicious’ behavior

MVFREE also examined findings of criminality; that is, if more Black people were coming into contact with police, were they then making up a greater percentage of criminal cases? She said no.

“We calculated Mill Valley arrest and citation rates for all racial groups to test whether the greatly elevated rates of MVPD detentions for Black and brown people correlated to greater findings of criminality for those racial groups. We found that they do not.”

A report by the Mill Valley Force for Racial Equity and Empowerment analyzing police traffic stop data found that people of color are treated very differently from white people by police in Mill Valley, with race a strong influencer of who gets detained and how they are treated while in police custody. (Image courtesy of MVFREE)

In fact, MVFREE found Black detainees had the highest rates of release for any race without arrest or citation, lending credence to the idea that people of color are disproportionately approached and detained by police in Mill Valley.

And at least part of the problem, the chief said, are people calling the police when they suspect a person of color of doing something “suspicious” when they are just going about their day — creating a bias by proxy.

This information has motivated Navarro to create an information campaign about bias by proxy that he says will kick off this month to educate the community about when and when not to call the police.

According to the chief, Mill Valley police are now attempting to spot possible biases from callers and use their own judgment before making stops. Officers are advised to use discretion about whether they will respond to a call or not if they feel there is not a legitimate basis to do so.

At the very least, the chief said, the officers should make contact with the person who made the report to police to “obtain further information as to the reason for requesting police assistance, response, or intervention prior to responding,” according to the bias by proxy policy.

“We have leaned forward and not only listened to our community, but have taken action,” Navarro said at the Oct. 3 council meeting.