Analysis: Study Shows Driving While Black Presents Disproportionate Risks


While there has been a lot of controversy about the increased focused on biased policing, one of the good results is we are starting to get real data on things that for years were only part of urban myths and anecdotes.

In California this year, Governor Brown signed AB 953 that will require officers to record the reason for each time they stop a car or individual, the result of that stop and the perceived race, gender and approximate age of the person stopped.

This weekend, the New York Times published “an examination of traffic stops and arrests in Greensboro, NC,” which have “wide racial differences in measure after measure of police conduct.”

As the article points out, there has been a national debate in the wake of encounters in Ferguson, Staten Island and Baltimore, with a now-growing list of other incidents in the last year. The question focuses on the idea that “much racial bias skews law enforcement behavior, even subconsciously.”

The article acknowledges, “Documenting racial profiling in police work is devilishly difficult, because a multitude of factors — including elevated violent crime rates in many black neighborhoods — makes it hard to tease out evidence of bias from other influences.”

However, as indicated, the New York Times analyzed “tens of thousands of traffic stops and years of arrest data in this racially mixed city of 280,000” and found “wide racial differences in measure after measure of police conduct.”

They add, “Those same disparities were found across North Carolina, the state that collects the most detailed data on traffic stops. And at least some of them showed up in the six other states that collect comprehensive traffic-stop statistics.”

In Greensboro, the third-largest city in North Carolina, “officers pulled over African-American drivers for traffic violations at a rate far out of proportion with their share of the local driving population. They used their discretion to search black drivers or their cars more than twice as often as white motorists — even though they found drugs and weapons significantly more often when the driver was white.”

They found that officers “were more likely to stop black drivers for no discernible reason. And they were more likely to use force if the driver was black, even when they did not encounter physical resistance.

“The routine nature of the stops belies their importance,” the Times writes. “As the public’s most common encounter with law enforcement, they largely shape perceptions of the police. Indeed, complaints about traffic-law enforcement are at the root of many accusations that some police departments engage in racial profiling.”

The Greensboro Police Chief defends his department, arguing that they need to make contact to effectively police and “one of the more common tools we have is stopping cars.”

The city of Greensboro is 41 percent black.

The Times writes, “National surveys show that blacks and whites use marijuana at virtually the same rate, but black residents here are charged with the sole offense of possession of minor amounts of marijuana five times as often as white residents are.”

They continue, saying that “more than four times as many blacks as whites are arrested on the sole charge of resisting, obstructing or delaying an officer, an offense so borderline that some North Carolina police chiefs discourage its use unless more serious crimes are also involved.”

Police officials defend this discrepancy, arguing that “most if not all of the racial disparities in their traffic enforcement stemmed from the fact that more African-Americans live in neighborhoods with higher crime, where officers patrol more aggressively. Pulling over drivers, they said, is a standard and effective form of proactive policing.”

The same argument has been used elsewhere to defend things like stop-and-frisk and other campaigns in “high-crime areas.”

“Criminals are less likely to frequent crime hot spots, the theory goes, if they know that the police there are especially vigilant,” defenders posit. But “increasingly, criminologists and even some police chiefs argue that such tactics needlessly alienate law-abiding citizens and undermine trust in the police.”

The Times cites a different approach being taken to the south in Fayetteville, NC. “Ronald L. Davis, a former California police chief who now runs the Justice Department’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, questions whether there are any benefits to intensive traffic enforcement in high-crime neighborhoods.”

“There is no evidence that just increasing stops reduces crime,” he said, pointing to a recent Justice Department review in St. Louis County, which includes Ferguson.

“The study showed — less convincingly than in Greensboro, because of less-specific data — that the police treated black motorists more harshly than white ones.”

“For any chief who faces those racial disparities, they should be of great concern,” Mr. Davis said.

Increasingly, states are collecting data on traffic stops and that data “show police officers are more likely to pull over black drivers than white ones, given their share of the local driving-age population.”

However, data are tricky to assess. As the Times points out, “By itself, that proves little, because other factors besides race could be in play. Because African-Americans are, for example, generally poorer than whites, they may have more expired vehicle registrations or other automotive lapses that attract officers’ attention.”

It is another set of data that ends up more telling, and that is what happens after the vehicle is pulled over. Do the officers use their discretion to search the vehicle?

The Times finds, “In the four states that track the results of consent searches, officers were more likely to conduct them when the driver was black, even though they consistently found drugs, guns or other contraband more often if the driver was white.”

It is important to understand that they are finding contraband more often if the driver is white, probably due to the fact that they are using a lower threshold to search black vehicles than white vehicles.

In their study, “The Times analyzed tens of thousands of traffic stops made by hundreds of officers since 2010. Although blacks made up 39 percent of Greensboro’s driving-age population, they constituted 54 percent of the drivers pulled over.”

They write, “Most black Greensboro drivers were stopped for regulatory or equipment violations, infractions that officers have the discretion to ignore. And black motorists who were stopped were let go with no police action — not even a warning — more often than were whites. Criminal justice experts say that raises questions about why they were pulled over at all and can indicate racial profiling.”

They continue, “In the past decade, officers reported using force during traffic stops only about once a month. The vast majority of the subjects were black, and most had put up resistance. Still, if a motorist was black, the odds were greater that officers would use force even in cases in which they did not first encounter resistance. Police officials suggested that could be because more black motorists tried to flee.”

The police chief attributes this to “sound crime-fighting strategies, not bias.” He argued that they have produced record-low burglary rates and that “most citizens welcome the effort.”

However, the Times reported that “many criminal justice experts contend that the racial consequences of that strategy far outweigh its benefits.”

“This is what people have been complaining about across the nation,” said Delores Jones-Brown, a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. “It means whites are ‘getting away’ with very low-level offenses, while people who are poor or people of color are suffering consequences.”

“It amounts to harassment,” she said. “And police cannot demonstrate that it is creating better public safety.” To the contrary, she added, “it makes minority citizens less likely to help the police prevent and solve crimes.”

The good news is that the renewed focus on this issue is drawing attention to the disproportionate nature of some of these policing efforts. And it has departments looking for ways to be just as effective in stopping crime but being more mindful of the unintended impacts of their policies.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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  1. Davis Progressive

    i don’t think the study reaches a real conclusion on the central contention – biased profiling versus high crime areas.  i do agree that the difference in treatment once stopped is the most telling statistic and as the article points out once they do stop and search, the bias is leading to a wider net for searches.  but in the end, it seems the nyt concludes that the reason to change tactics is the perception of bias rather than proof of actual bias.

      1. Davis Progressive

        the question is whether that’s actually the tradeoff.  i think what we are seeing is a lot of police chiefs re-thinking their approach in ways that doesn’t create that trade off.

        1. Frankly

          Without a comprehensive approach to incrementally and sustain-ably improve all the critical over-representation of negative statistical outcomes in the black community, of course increase crime will be a result.

          I think you and others are really holding on to a line of smoke holding on to some weird opinion that the attention cops give the black community is somehow responsible for crime.  Reduce the attention of law enforcement and we will absolutely see more law-breaking.

          I have an opinion that we are, in fact, going to see a great increase in crime because of this liberal and Democrat narrative that law enforcement and crime and punishment are the primary problems in the black community.

      2. Tia Will


        Are we willing to allow more real crime to combat the perception of bias.  I’m not.”

        I think that this is a great question. On the surface, I would agree with your answer. However, I think this is not quite so simple an issue as you are portraying. I would say that it depends on the consequences of the perception of bias. If the perception of bias leads a community to not co operate with the police in crime investigation, then that may be the greater harm. If the issue of bias is in itself so divisive that it prevents people of differing philosophies from working together, then that may be the greater harm.

        You come at this issue from a near unswerving faith in the reliability of the police to do their job in an unbiased fashion that doubtless serves you ( and me) very well. That does not mean that we should close our eyes to the fact that large segments of our population do not share our perception of the good intentions  and unbiased behavior of the police. This is largely because  of the police actions that they see in their own communities lead them to believe otherwise, not because they spend their time reading the New York Times or listening to CNN or NPR or any other news source that you vilify as the source of their police related discontent.

  2. Frankly

    Here is the big piece of thinking missing from this narrative.

    If the cops are required to do race accounting instead of using professional judgement for who they question and search; will that lead to an increase in crime because the criminals have a lower risk of being discovered and apprehended?

    Of course it will.

    And of course those social justice crusaders will deny it… finding ways to blame it on other factors.

    1. Davis Progressive

      the cops aren’t going to be required to do that at the street level.  what the nyt article explained was that there are different strategies and policy changes that can impact the bottom of proportionality.  those policy changes happen with the chief, captains and lts, not on the street level.

    2. Tia Will


      finding ways to blame it on other factors.”

      I would rephrase this to say : Finding ways to acknowledge, account for and address the multifactorial nature of crime in our high crime areas.  Or do you dispute that there are multiple factors involved ?

  3. tribeUSA

    another factor that may play a role in the perception of bias is the fact that the media and politicos are constantly trumpeting that there is bias–so naturally if you are a black guy and get pulled over, you are likely to attribute this to bias, rather than other factors, in part because the media and politicos have been stating that such is the case. So you might feel more resentful and less cooperative during a stop or arrest, so you get harsher treatment by the police, reinforcing the taught notion of bias by police in a self-reinforcing cycle.

    It’s a conundrum, because I suspect there may be some actual bias in many municipalities (by a few individual police, or perhaps even some departmental policy bias–though departmental bias is difficult to get away with these days, at least by official policy, though of course could go under the radar), but difficult to separate from perception, and the role of perception/resentment in perpetuating the cycle.

    I do agree with one of the major points about improving policing strategies and tactics for some neighborhoods so that the people in the neighborhood recover a level of trust in the police; that would be very helpful.

  4. Tia Will


    so naturally if you are a black guy and get pulled over, you are likely to attribute this to bias, rather than other factors, in part because the media and politicos have been stating that such is the case.”

    I think that this may overemphasize just how much news and or political discourse the average citizen listens to. On another thread, we have Anon saying that even here in Davis, where we have a highly educated engaged citizenry, that her interpretation of the views of the “average citizen” are not based on a thorough knowledge of the news and or the facts as put forth by the city because of demands on their time which preclude them from keeping current. From direct experience ( since I came from a poverty background) I can assure you that this is even more true for those who are not so highly educated or perhaps have to work more than one job just to keep their family housed and fed. I think it is much more likely that most of their perceptions about what happens in their neighborhoods comes from direct observation and word of mouth than by listening to the news and pundits.

  5. Miwok

    This article mentions many factors, including arresting people for “Obstructing” when they were just pulled over? This speaks to the obvious problem of using traffic stops for income generation by police all over the country.

    Most law enforcement people I know tell me they go were the low hanging fruit is, to give tickets and such, when THEY would rather be protecting people and fighting crime. Rather they have to keep their jobs by tickets quotas/income generation.. Address that in a meaningful way, and maybe the other can take care of itself.

    My FB post, probably deleted, mentioned maybe Blacks who feel targeted need to walk around heir vehicle for broken taillights, drive responsibly, and keep their hands and feet inside the car at all times until the ride comes to a complete stop.

  6. theotherside

    More and more law enforcement agencies are using “hot spot policing” now.  Crime and statistical analysis to deploy enforcement resources to where crime is being committed at higher rates.  So naturally law enforcement resources are placed in low income areas and neighborhoods.  For whatever reason you want to attribute to it, minorities are unfortunately over represented in these areas.; reasons why can be debated another time (welfare, education, access to resources, etc).  For example in Sacramento Oak Park will receive vastly more patrols that the Fab 40’s.  So yes minorities will be contacted at higher rates during directed police enforcement.  This is not biased based, rather it is statistical based.  Officers may have implicit bias, but every human being on the planet does whether they’d like to admit it or not.

    Vehicle stops are effective in combating crime and traffic issues.  But law enforcement agencies are no longer relying on directed enforcement.  Community outreach is increasing at astronomical rates.  Coffee with a Cop, community meetings, and similar social outreach happens almost daily across the region.  But sadly community members are more likely to attend a demonstration or meeting to complain about agencies than go meet their local beat officers at a community meeting and discuss crime trends and facilitate a relationship.  Sad that tools for building relationships are going unused.

      1. theotherside

        The point being that directed enforcement in high crime areas is just a part of current crime reduction trends.  Agencies are getting out into these neighborhoods to build relationships with those affected most by crime.  The solutions are not solely lying on the law enforcement agencies backs.

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