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Major Study Shows Police Traffic Stops Often Based on Racial Profiling

Posted by Joseph Tully | Mar 16, 2019


The largest amount of data ever collected regarding police traffic stops shows racial profiling is alive and well among police officers. The Stanford Open Policing Project, (“SOPP”) consisting of an interdisciplinary team of journalists and researchers at Stanford University, examined nearly 100 million traffic stops made between 2011 to 2017 by 21 state patrol agencies and 29 municipal police departments. The latter included major cities such as Philadelphia, San Francisco, and New Orleans.

The data shows that African-American and Latino drivers were stopped based on less evidence than that for white drivers. The study also showed that while white drivers are less likely to be searched than nonwhite drivers, when they are searched they are more likely to possess illegal items. The information doesn't come as a surprise to most African-American and Latino drivers, but for the first time, the data is there to back up anecdotal reporting.

Three Types of Data

SOPP looked at the available data in three different ways. First were the actual police stops, and whether black drivers were more likely to have police pull them over at night when it is harder to visually distinguish a driver's race. Researchers found that black drivers were up to 10 percent less likely to have police stop them at night.

The second type of data examined involved police searches. The evidence showed that while black and Latino drivers were more likely to have their vehicles searched for illegal items, it was white drivers who more often had illegal substances or objects on them, such as drugs or firearms. Such illegal items were found in the possession of 36 percent of white drivers searched, while the numbers for black and Latino drivers were 32 percent and 26 percent, respectively.

The last data set examined the impact of cannabis legalization in Colorado and Washington. In both states, legalization lowered the number of searches for all drivers. However, members of minority groups were still searched twice as often as white drivers.

The Police Response

Some police departments and police organization representatives have responded to the SOPP's findings, and as expected, they don't necessarily concur with them. The executive director of the largest such police organization, the Fraternal Order of Police, said police officers are trained to stop drivers based on behavior, and often cannot tell a person's race when an officer pulls them over from behind.

He adds that police patrol high-crime areas with more minority residents more often than low-crime areas, and that may account for the racial disparity in police pullovers. However, he admits that police are conscious of possible bias, and they are trained against it.

A spokesman for the St. Paul, Minnesota police department said the department's own data show inequities in traffic stops, and the department is promoting new initiatives to address the problem. These include annual implicit bias training required of all employees and the sharing of each officer's traffic stop data with them, so a better understanding of who is pulled over and why ensues.

Looking at Options

One member of the SOPP says he hopes law enforcement agencies will go through their own data and recognize the issue as it pertains to their communities. He recommends that when police patrol high-crime areas, they stop pulling over drivers for minor offenses, such as a broken tail light. Such steps would make sure that stops were done for legitimate reasons, and not based on bias.

About the Author

Joseph Tully

Founding Partner, Criminal Law Specialist Our founding attorney, Joseph Tully, is sought out for his expert legal advice throughout California. With over 20 years of experience as a criminal lawyer, in 1000+ felony and other cases, Tully served as felony trial counsel as a public defender before...