Multnomah analyst's firing clouds future of disparities tool
In June, when Multnomah County analyst Amanda Lamb informed her supervisor she'd been invited to a conference in Las Vegas to present her research on racial disparities in the criminal justice system, the response was unequivocal:
"Very cool!" replied manager Abbey Stamp in a June 8 email obtained by the Portland Tribune. "Congratulations."
Two weeks before the presentation, on Sept. 25, Lamb invited Stamp and other coworkers to a dry run of her presentation.
But in October, after a backlash from local elected officials arose over the public presentation, Stamp cut off Lamb's access to the criminal justice data she had presented. And the presentation was pulled off the internet.
Lamb never regained access to the data, instead receiving notice of her termination on Dec. 8.
"The bottom line is she was not authorized to disclose the information and the county cannot overlook that," a county spokeswoman said.
Despite officials' assurances to the contrary, Lamb's firing has thrown into question the county's commitment to publicly release a crucial tool that the analyst has created to evaluate racial disparities in the criminal justice system and hold elected officials accountable.
Ashlee Albies, a civil rights lawyer who has sued county officials over discrimination claims, said "when something like this happens, I think it undermines their public position that they're taking steps to adress these issues."
The interactive data "dashboard" Lamb was spearheading was intended to put the county on the cutting edge of eliminating the disparities that continue to breed distrust and alienation nationwide.
Some who've been awaiting her work say it's crucial. Full public transparency of the dashboard and its data is "the only way you move the conversation (forward) or have a meaningful conversation about these issues," said Bobbin Singh, head of the Oregon Justice Resource Center.
News of Lamb's firing has set off a minor firestorm among the public, and sparked many questions.
Was her trip approved? Who was responsible for her firing? What does her departure mean for the future of her work?
Newly obtained documents and interviews answer some of the questions, but raise others. What follows are four findings stemming from the Tribune's effort to figure things out.
Tensions around Lamb's work predated her October presentation
Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury hired Lamb, a former auditor, to provide research for the county's Local Public Safety Coordinating Council. Composed of local law enforcement officials and judges, the council has studied racial disparities since the turn of the century, leading to several reform efforts.
Lamb began working with the council's so-called data warehouse, created with $7.5 million from the 1996 bond measure that built the never-opened Wapato jail.
The warehouse combines data from the different agencies involved, which Lamb used to create the public dashboard showing racial and ethnic disparities in criminal justice.
In early December 2016, Lamb presented her work to the elected officials on the council, showing how it could slice and dice data concerning defendants accused of a variety of crimes, and show how sentences differ depending on one's race and ethnicity.
In late January, in response to a records request, Lamb's superiors had the analyst brief the Tribune on the dashboard, with the understanding that the paper intended to write an in-depth article upon its public release.
As the Tribune prepared to release a series on racial disparties in sentencing called Unequal Justice with the group InvestigateWest, Lamb also shared some of her other preliminary analysis. One of the more provocative findings: that African-American murder defendants in Multnomah County were 48 percent more likely than their white counterparts to be found guilty. Asked about the findings, local officials questioned Lamb's numbers.
Then, after first saying it was imminent, the county kept postponing the dashboard release date, saying that a data-sharing agreement needed to be modernized.
Behind the scenes, local court officials didn't like that Lamb had shared draft findings, including with the Tribune, interviews and documents show.
In one email to her supervisor in June — five months after the presentation to the Tribune — Lamb responded to concerns expressed by local court officials, saying she kept them in the loop before any public presentations.
Court officials still weren't happy.
"The court had not had an opportunity to vet and determine whether it was accurately portraying the court's data," said Multnomah court administrator Barb Marcille.
Judges also wanted the dashboard changed to allow data to be filtered by criminal history and crime severity, to enable a more nuanced picture. The goal: to avoid fueling distrust of the courts with simplified data around racial disparities.
"It erodes confidence ... to have these blanket statements about sentencing bias out there," Marcille said.
She and presiding Judge Nan Waller say they were not trying to hide anything. They just want accurate data to be released.
"We are transparent with the community about what is happening with the criminal justice system and disparities," Waller said. "But we also know that if we are giving out misinformation about where the issues are, then it's probably not going to ... lead to the solutions."
With her data skills, Lamb became a resource for local elected officials, providing information to them about what the public records she worked with showed.
But this part of her job was also sensitive.
On the eve of the Las Vegas presentation, Waller shared concerns with Lamb's supervisor that the analyst failed to get the court's permission before sharing court data with District Attorney Rod Underhill at his request.
It's unclear if Lamb heard about the concern before her return.
Not just data-sharing, but Lamb's statements, peeved local officials
Lamb gave her Oct. 10 presentation not to criminal justice experts but to users of Tableau, the software she was using for the public dashboard.
After the conference was over, organizers posted the presentations online. Court data analysts promptly shared it with their superiors, who called Lamb's supervisor, Stamp.
Stamp was apparently caught by surprise about all that Lamb had presented because, for reasons the county declined to explain, she left Lamb's Sept. 25 dry run of the presentation after 20 or 30 minutes.
After complaining to Stamp, court officials also alerted Underhill and Sheriff Mike Reese, who both expressed concern.
Among the elected officials' concerns:
-- In her talk, Lamb noted that the dashboard was not public yet — and then proceeded to walk the audience through it. Under an agreement signed by users of the public safety council's data warehouse — and emailed out to the council's partners by Lamb in December 2016 — users cannot share any agency data without its permission.
-- Lamb blamed elected officials' sensitivities for the fact that the dashboard hadn't been released yet. "It has been a really big challenge to try to build support, and it's not because people are trying to hide anything," she said. "This is just really sensitive to the people that are going to be held accountable..."
-- Lamb did not use the filters sought by judges, which would allow defendants' criminal history to be factored into comparisons of sentencing outcomes. And she oversimplified one charge, interfering with public transit, as failing to pay a TriMet fare.
The problem wasn't so much the data, but "the statements that were made about it," said Marcille, the court administrator.
--Also, her data appeared to conflict with other findings. Among other things, Underhill, the elected top prosecutor, noted that Lamb previously had shared with the Tribune that disparities in his office's work had dropped precipitiously over the last three years —but her Vegas presentation did not reflect that.
The nature of Sheriff Reese's concerns, and how strenuously he voiced them to Chair Kafoury, are unclear. Marcille, the court administrator, said he shared with her a level of concern that was at least close to theirs. To the Tribune, Reese declined to comment — even on the accuracy of the Vegas presentation. Though Lamb had already been fired, Reese through a spokesman portrayed the data's accuracy as a personnel matter.
Among other things, Lamb displayed a slide showing that African American inmates were disproportionately subjected to use of force in Reese's jails.
Similar findings in her previous job for Reese's predecessor, former Sheriff Dan Staton, led to her lay-off there in August 2015, after which Kafoury hired her.
Staton last year had vowed to follow up on Lamb's findings with an independent consultant. But Reese, upon succeeding Staton, shifted the focus of the consultant's report away from reinvestigating Lamb's racial disparity findings.
An apology tour did not save Lamb
On Oct. 16, six days after the Vegas presentation, Waller and Marcille shared their concerns with Stamp that Lamb had shared data without permission, contrary to the rules that users of the data had agreed to.
The court officials appeared to also issue what some have interpreted as a pressure on the county to discipline Lamb, indicating that they would await a county decision on whether to take a personnel action against Lamb before considering whether to pull state court data out of the dashboard.
The message was that any personnel decision around Lamb was "for you to deal with, and us to make a decision then, about what happens with our data," Waller recalled. "We choose to give our data to (the data warehouse), as do the other agencies. We don't have to."
Waller says she doesn't think pulling the data out of the warehouse actually would have happened— adding that the courts intended to continue participating. But the prospect of the state court system withholding its government-funded public data from the local effort to reduce racial disparities undoubtedly caused bureacratic heartburn. Though all the courts' data is legally required to be publicly available under the state's records law, having the courts supply that data voluntarily and participate in its analysis is consistent with the collaborative history and intent of the public safety council.
Lamb's supervisor, Stamp, apparently tried to save the analyst's job by sending her on what amounted to an apology tour to all members of the public safety council, meeting with Reese, county Community Justice Director Scott Taylor and District Attorney Underhill.
But on Nov. 2, Multnomah's head criminal Judge Ed Jones called Lamb's analysis "half-assed" in an email. The Portland Mercury broke the news that local officials were peeved, causing Lamb's presentation to be pulled from the conference website.
In the ensuing days, the question was raised, based on discussions between the elected officials comprising the public safety council, whether Lamb should be laid off and her position eliminated.
In a meeting of local officials on Friday, Dec. 1, Waller was asked directly if the state court system would continue to share data with the county public safety data warehouse if Lamb remained involved.
Waller expressed the courts' intent to continue sharing data, but her response to some observers indicated that Lamb's participation in the public safety council's efforts — including the dashboard she had created — remained an issue.
On Dec. 6 Lamb was placed on leave, and fired two days later.
The dashboard's future is unclear
Central to the concerns of Waller and other court officials was the belief that no racial disparity data of the type Lamb was working on should be released publicly unless local judges, prosecutors, the sheriff and probation officials sign off on the specifics of its presentation.
They say that's why a new data-sharing agreement to ensure those "checks and balances" is so important.
Several data analysts said the double-checking and review period desired by the courts is standard practice.
"It sounds to me that that process wasn't completed to get people to a comfortable place," said Mike Schmidt, executive director of the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission, which has set up its own dashboard.
Jim Carlson, a former research supervisor who worked for the public safety council year ago, said Lamb's presentation did not go deep enough. He investigated similar disparities in a 2003 report, only to find that they mostly disappeared once criminal history and immigration status were taken into account. He said that the topic is so inflammatory that it's easily misunderstood.
"I think the judges have a legitimate complaint that this is being presented in a way that implies bias," he said, after viewing Lamb's presentation. But he added that firing Lamb went too far, especially considering her impressive array of skills:
"You know how rare it is," Carlson said, "that someone like that comes along?"
He noted the public safety council has frequently released embarrassing data in the past on disparities, and he expressed confidence that its tradition of transparency would continue.
Still, how much of the dashboard's current level of detail will survive officials' concerns is unclear. Consider this seeming Catch-22: While complaining that the numbers of cases analyzed should be significantly larger than Lamb used with the dashboard, Waller and Marcille, the court officials, simultaneously argued that results also should be filtered by criminal history and crime severity before displaying conclusions-- which would lead to even smaller sample sizes than Lamb used.
They also raised concerns about whether comparing average jail stay by charge and ethnicity was accurate or fair given the many factors that could affect jail stays.
Singh, of the Oregon Justice Resource Center, said he supports a nuanced dashboard and can't comment on Lamb's firing.
But giving a veto to any agency over any presentation of the county's justice data seems "a bit too much," he said.
Kafoury declined to discuss Lamb's firing. But the county chair said she intends to continue pushing for Lamb's dashboard to become public, even if it makes people uncomfortable. And she is confident that it will happen.
The county is pursuing several initiatives to address racial disparities, and "we need this dashboard to measure whether what we are doing is making a difference," she said.