No Shortage of Detractors for Racial Profiling Findings

by Categorized: Data, Law Enforcement, Public Safety, Race/Ethnicity Date:

Racial and ethnic disparities in policing has long been an uneasy topic in Connecticut and across the country. And that was reflected in reaction to a Sunday story in the Courant reporting that black and Hispanic motorists pulled over for traffic violations were more likely to receive a ticket than were white motorists pulled over for the same offense.

Many commenters and email writers were quick to challenge the findings,  advancing a slew of reasons why the data or the analysis was flawed, and confidently assuring that there was a legitimate reason for any disparities in policing. Some raised legitimate questions. Others misunderstood the analysis.

The Courant performed a similar analysis in 2012 – and received a similarly visceral reaction from many readers.  So as we did three years ago, here’s an elucidation on a few of the topics raised by readers.

The most common misconception was that the reported disparities simply indicate that black and Hispanic drivers violate traffic laws at higher rates than white motorists. “Could minority drivers commit more motor vehicle violations than non-minority drivers?” one poster asked. “No, this can’t be true. that would be racist.”

That is a frequent response to racial-profiling studies, particularly those that focus on measuring the race and ethnicity of stopped drivers. But the Courant’s analysis focused exclusively on post-stop behavior and the often-discretionary decision – made after a police officer has witnessed a violation and stopped a driver – to give a ticket versus a warning. With that analysis, the underlying rate at which any one group commits motor-vehicle violations is irrelevant. Our analysis essentially asked: Of all motorists who were stopped for violating a particular law, what percentage received a ticket, and did that percentage vary by race and ethnicity? For every category of moving violation, the analysis showed black offenders were more likely than white offenders to receive a ticket, and Hispanic offenders were more likely to be ticketed than either whites or blacks.

(As to the poster’s initial point, police officials tell me that while there are differences in violation rates related to maintenance of vehicles and so-called “status offenses” such as driving without a license, registration or insurance – all of which have an economic component – there are no significant racial or ethnic differences in violation rates for moving violations.)

Others insisted the race and ethnicity of motorists cannot be gleaned from a distance, and reject any analysis of racial-profiling. But as noted, the Courant’s analysis looked only at post-stop behavior, when the race and ethnicity of the driver is easy to ascertain. (And the pre-stop analysis performed by researchers at Central Connecticut State University as part of the Connecticut Racial Profiling Prohibition Project used a sophisticated and well-regarded method to identify trends suggesting racial and ethnic disparities in police stops.)

Several commenters and emailers wanted to know whether there were disparities in ticketing rates between white and minority officers. “Did anyone study the numbers of how many white motorists are ticketed when stopped by black or Hispanic officers?” one poster asked.

The traffic-stop data do not include the race or ethnicity of the officer. It’s possible that information could be gleaned from other data held by police agencies, and from a public policy perspective, it could be useful to see whether minority officers treat minority and white drivers differently than do white officers. Whatever that analysis found, however, it would not negate the bottom-line finding that overall, blacks and Hispanics face a greater likelihood of being ticketed, compared to whites pulled over for the same offense.

Other insisted race and ethnicity were entirely irrelevant to ticketing, and that the real determining factor in ticketing was the driver’s attitude. “Does the driver say yes sir, no sir, yes ma’am, no ma’am and speak respectfully, or give the officer a hard time or treat it like a joke?” one commenter asked. “I have said it before and will continue to say it. Its not race, its mostly behavior. Now track behavior by race.”

The data do not record the officer’s assessment of the attitude of the driver, but police officials I’ve spoken with over the years reject the idea that it would be acceptable for officers to essentially punish motorists with a bad attitude by treating them more harshly than those who behave subserviently.

Finally, some who wrote simply were confused about the mechanics of the traffic-stop survey. “If someone did not get a ticket how would they know. I don’t believe it” one wrote. Said another: “How does the study know the race of the driver? Are the researchers following the police? Is there a box on the ticket to check race?”

To answer those questions: police are required to report information on every traffic stop they make, including demographic information about the driver, the reason for the stop, and the outcome – even if no ticket is given. And the box to identify race is not on the ticket, but on the electronic form used with every stop, allowing researchers to analyze stops whether there is an arrest, a ticket, a warning, or no action at all.

Scot X. Esdaile, president of the Connecticut chapter of the NAACP, said he is “appalled” by efforts to dismiss the work of the Connecticut Racial Profiling Prohibition Project, saying the findings merely add numbers to what he and others see as an obvious, indisputable fact of life.

The sharply differing opinions about the racial-profiling work may itself be evidence of the deep racial and ethnic divide that exists in the state, and how much work remains to answer the question posed by one of my email correspondents: “Why can’t we all just get along and judge everyone on their merits and not race?”

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