It’s time to Break It Down!
The data are clear, persistent, and as revealing as critics of the practice thought it would be, maybe even more so. After over twenty million traffic stops in my home state of North Carolina, researchers discovered a protracted pattern of racial disparities that do not disappear when taking into account legally relevant factors such as being pulled over for drunk driving or when researchers considered legally irrelevant differences such as age or gender. All things considered, racially disparate search rates appear to happen because police tend to hold unwarranted suspicions about young men of color.
Frank R. Baumgartner, Richard J. Richardson Distinguished Professor of Political Science at the University of North Carolina, Derek Andrew Epp, Assistant Professor of Government at the University of Texas at Austin, and Kelsey Shoub, a Ph.D. candidate in Political Science at the University of North Carolina, have written a book published this year, entitled, “Suspect Citizens What 20 Million Traffic Stops Tell Us About Race.” In summary, the book provides the most in-depth look to date at the most frequently occurring form of police-citizen interactions, the routine traffic stop. Since the inception of the war on crime, police departments have employed traffic stops as a means to search drivers suspected of transporting contraband.
From the outset, police agencies made it clear that large numbers of stops would have to be made before scoring a significant drug bust. What was not stated up front was the calculation that many Americans would be subjected to police investigations so that a small number of high-level offenders might be caught. However, the principal element of the strategy that was denied sunlight was the fact that middle-class white Americans were largely exempt from its consequences. “Suspect Citizens” documents the extreme rarity of drug busts, while simultaneously revealing the sustained and troubling disparities in how racial groups are treated.
The book’s work focuses on every traffic stop in the state of North Carolina from 2002 to 2016. This deep dive provides unassailable evidence of racial bias in police-citizen interactions. Moreover, given the scholarly heft of the authors’ research, their work may generate practical policy reforms.
The genesis of the research associated with this book was intended to discern the viability of whether Driving While Black (DWB) is a thing. Most African Americans know that it is, and many, black males in particular, often can offer a litany of off-the-cuff examples. While the common traffic stop may be discounted as a mere brief inconvenience for whites, for blacks, they frequently lead to humiliation, violence, and even death. This has become increasingly clear in recent years, as videos have surfaced, hashtags have trended, and various reports have been released. As a result of these indisputably verified accounts, the black box of negative interactions between police and drivers of color have been unveiled for all to see. “Suspect Citizens” sets out to move beyond un-researched episodes to systematically exploring every traffic stop in North Carolina for more than a decade. Here is the operational framework that serves as the foundation for the book:
Who Gets Stopped, Who Gets Searched?
- 1999 NC law mandated confirmation or refutation of the “DWB” allegation. It can clearly be confirmed. The state has never done so.
- Data: 20 million stops (all of them) from 2002 to present.
- Stops: Blacks 63 percent more likely than whites, by population.
- But blacks drive 16 percent less. So about 95 percent more likely, by driving habits
- Searches: Among those stopped, blacks are 115 percent more likely to be searched (2.35 % for whites, 5.05% for blacks)
- So: a double whammy: 95 percent more risk of stop, 115 percent more risk of search, given a stop. Double, and then double again. Search rates per stop about 2x, search rates per population: 4x.
So what are the outcomes of these kinds of searches? At first glance, the answer may seem surprising, if not flatly counterintuitive. White, middle-class drivers are more likely to get a ticket. That may sound inconsistent with preceding assertion. But the reality is it’s not. Why? Because if you are objectively breaking the law—say you’re speeding, or you run a light—you deserve to get a ticket. That is to say, in their cases, they were only pulled over after having been observed violating the traffic code in a serious way. They were violating traffic laws, and they got a ticket for their troubles.
Conversely, black drivers are more likely to get a warning. Again, that seems counterintuitive, until you think about it in broader terms. On the surface, that may sound like a good outcome. That is unless, or until you ask the why question. As in, why was that person stopped in the first place? Often, the reason was just that the officer had a vague suspicion and a desire to investigate. So they stopped the person based upon a pretext, they investigated by starting a conversation with the driver, and…since nothing turned up, they said, “Well, thank you for your time. I pulled you over because you were speeding by five miles per hour. I just wanted to tell you to slow down and be more careful.
During the course of their research, the authors found the biggest predictor of low disparity in traffic stops and searches is having black representation on the city council. After looking closely at all municipalities within the state of North Carolina, black city council representation, which tends to correlate with having a large black share in the population and having a large share of black voting in the most recent election, was the most significant factor in blacks having a low disparity in receiving tickets. At its root, that indicates that government agencies, including police, respond to politics.
After parsing an enormous amount of data, the authors reached a number of conclusions. Here are a few:
- Use of the vehicle code for criminal investigation is: • Extremely inefficient (leads to very few significant contraband hits, only 12 % arrested after search)
- Racially biased
- Generative of tremendous community mistrust, in those communities being targeted.
- However, it is invisible and perhaps unbelievable in those communities not being targeted. Hence its political value.
- Implicit bias as well as institutional procedures are at the core of these patterns. “High crime” areas have mostly law-abiders…
- Simple institutional reforms can dramatically reduce disparities and the mistrust
- Voice matters: suppress the vote, reduce voice, gerrymander the districts to restrict black power: disparities can be greater
- Voice matters: vote; gain representation, equitable treatment follows
Police violence in minority communities has been frequently and persistently highlighted since the 2013 launch of the #BlackLivesMatter movement. Problems of racially disparate policing, however, are long-standing. Yet, developing and implementing effective public policy responses have been slow, and are frequently undercut because of the tendency of middle-class white Americans to doubt allegations of systematic injustices. There is widespread admission that there may be a small number of rogue officers who are corrupt and/or racist. But most whites cannot (or will not allow themselves to) envisage that police interactions with minority citizens are regularly harsh.
Middle-class whites may find it incredible that police would behave in ways they themselves have never experienced. Alternately, young men of color grow up with different, negative expectations that naturally reduce their trust in government. Ergo, they become less likely to cooperate with police, to vote, or to participate constructively in public life. In the final analysis, crime control becomes more difficult to achieve because so many members of the public, particularly in high crime areas, have been bequeathed a legacy of legitimate reasons to be distrustful of police.
After their exhaustive analysis, the authors recommended a number of reforms. Some of them include:
- Focus on traffic safety, not investigatory stops, reduce disparities: • Arrest rate ratio, 1.68 overall, 1.29 for safety stops (24 percent less)
- Search rate ratio, 2.15 overall, 1.76 for safety stops (18 percent less)
- Written consent forms very effective
Baumgartner, Epp, and Shoub conducted an epic study and concluded that using the War on Crime, the traffic code and the vehicle code as mechanisms to investigate people more broadly has not only been ineffective, but doing so has had the unintended and previously undocumented consequence of making people feel as if they do not have full citizenship. They feel, instead, as though they are perpetual suspects. “Racial Profiling: Clear As Black And White!”
I’m done; holla back!
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