Study of 100 million traffic stops finds evidence of racial bias

Across the United States, people of color often complain that they are stopped by police — frequently — for no apparent reason. Nevertheless, these traffic stops result in citations, fines and arrests.

Many argue that these traffic stops are clear examples of racial profiling. If that could be shown to be true, it would add a great deal to the evidence that African-Americans, Latinos, Native Americans and other people of color are targeted by police at higher rates generally. Evidence of racial disparities in traffic stops could highlight the existence of the problem in policing generally.

A group from Stanford University has just released an analysis of nearly 100 million traffic stops to determine if there was evidence of racial disparities. This was the largest data set ever analyzed. Researchers from the Stanford Open Policing Project gathered data on traffic stops and searches from 21 state patrol agencies, including North Carolina, and from 29 municipal police departments, including at least five in our state. The stops and searches occurred between 2011 and 2017.

The data was limited by which departments were willing to provide data. However, the data set contained states and cities from a variety of regions across the United States and seems reasonably representative of the U.S. as a whole.

20 million drivers pulled over each year; people of color over-represented

According to an NBC News review of the raw data and the report, the Stanford analysis indicates pervasive inequality in traffic stops and vehicle searches. The researchers weren’t trying to find evidence that police officers intentionally discriminate when choosing people to pull over. Instead, they identified evidence that:

  • People of color are pulled over at greater rates than their percentage of the population
  • People of color are pulled over with less evidence justifying the stop
  • People of color are pulled over less often at night, when identifying race is more difficult
  • People of color have their vehicles searched at greater rates that whites but whites are more likely to be carrying contraband

All of these turned out to be true. For example, the researchers showed that African-Americans are pulled over 5 to 10 percent less often after sunset, which suggests they are being racially profiled during the day. Also, African-Americans and Latinos were searched at higher rates than whites even though whites were the most likely to have contraband (36 percent vs. 32 percent for African-Americans and 26 percent for Latinos).

The executive director of the Fraternal Order of Police assured NBC that police organizations are conscious of bias and work hard through recruitment, training and promotion to avoid it. He added that he suspected the main reason people of color are pulled over more than whites is that the areas they tend to live in are high-crime areas. The study appears to conclude otherwise.

The Stanford study indicates measurable disparities in traffic stops and searches that aren’t easily explained away. It adds to a long list of studies concluding that people of color are stopped, searched, arrested and charged at far greater rates than their percentage of the population even though they do not commit crimes at greater rates than whites.

These disparities have been shown to carry through to bail, pretrial confinement, plea bargaining, conviction rates, sentencing and parole. Transparency like that provided by this study may be the first step towards change.

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