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Analysis of 100 mln traffic stops & searches reveals racial bias

On Behalf of | Mar 25, 2019 | Criminal Defense

Is “driving while black” real? Do people of color get pulled over for less serious traffic offenses than whites? Are they searched more often than whites? Is racial profiling a substantial factor in police stops and searches?

Researchers from the Stanford Open Policing Project at Stanford University analyzed almost 100 million traffic stops and searches to find out. They recently issued their report and gave NBC News access to the data, which was the largest set of traffic stop data ever studied.

The data included stops and searches conducted between 2011 and 2017 by 21 state patrol agencies and 29 municipal police departments from around the nation. The reason for the limited number of law enforcement agencies is that not all states and cities collect detailed data on traffic stops and searches that includes the driver’s race.

No Mississippi agencies took part, although agencies from Louisiana, Tennessee and Florida were represented. Overall, the cities and states seem reasonably representative of the nation as a whole.

It’s important to understand that the researchers weren’t looking for actual racial bias by law enforcement officers. Instead, they were looking for red flags indicating racial disparities that are not explained by actual differences in crime rates between whites and people of color. (Previous research has generally shown no race-based differences in actual crime rates overall.)

The ‘veil of darkness’ makes racial profiling more difficult

One interesting way the researchers parsed the data was to find out whether African-American drivers are pulled over more often in the daytime. That would seem to indicate racial profiling, as people’s races are less noticeable at night. Indeed, the researchers found that black people are 5 to 10 times less likely to be pulled over at night.

People of color searched more often — and for less reason

The researchers also reviewed the rates at which people of color and whites were searched during traffic stops, compared to the rate at which illegal drugs or guns were actually discovered during those searches. They found evidence that African-Americans and Latinos are searched for less reason than are whites. They were searched more often, yet whites were substantially more likely to be carrying contraband:

  • 36 percent of white drivers were carrying contraband
  • 32 percent of African-American drivers were carrying contraband
  • 26 percent of Latino drivers were carrying contraband

Does marijuana legalization reduce racial disparities?

The researchers took a close look at Colorado and Washington State, both of which have legalized marijuana for recreational purposes. They found that legalization had reduced the overall number of vehicle searches, but people of color were still searched twice as often as whites.

Racial profiling in traffic stops could indicate racial profiling elsewhere

This data is critically important if we are to understand whether people of color are receiving the equal protection of our laws. While traffic stops and searches may seem like a relatively minor part of policing, they do lead to the discovery of other crimes and result in arrests on many occasions.

Unfortunately, previous research has indicated that people of color are affected by bias all through the criminal justice system from initial encounters with law enforcement to conviction, sentencing and even parole.

If we are to have a fair justice system, police agencies from around the nation need to take this data seriously and work quickly and hard to address the disparities.