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