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Study of 100 mln traffic stops finds pervasive racial disparities

"Driving while black" isn't a real crime, but it might as well be. African-Americans and people of color persistently report being stopped, searched, cited and even arrested for traffic offenses in situations where white people probably wouldn't be. Yet people of color don't break the law at a higher rate than whites. If anything, a recent study found, whites are more likely to do so.

Stanford University's Open Policing Project recently examined nearly 100 million traffic stops in an effort to identify any evidence of racial profiling. It wasn't hard to find, unfortunately.

The traffic stop data involved stops between 2011 and 2017 performed by 21 state patrol agencies and 29 municipal police departments. The agencies and departments came from a nationally representative group including California, New York, Illinois, Texas, Louisiana, Pennsylvania, Minnesota and others. The locations were chosen based on whether they shared sufficient information for analysis. Iowa did not.

Less evidence being used to justify stops of blacks, Latinos

According to NBC News, which examined the project's traffic stop data, there was stark evidence of actual bias, whether or not it was intentional. When police stopped and searched African-Americans and Latinos, the study found, they did so based on less evidence than when they stopped whites. Yet whites were more likely to be caught with illegal items than drivers of color.

Averaging across states, 36 percent of white drivers were caught with contraband compared to 32 percent of African-Americans and only 26 percent of Latinos.

The study also considered whether the disparity in police stops and searches is as large during nighttime hours. Logically, it would be more difficult to engage in racial profiling after dark because it would be harder to spot a driver's race. After accounting for variation in sunset times, the researchers found that nighttime heralded a 5 to 10 percent drop in the number of African-Americans being pulled over.

The Fraternal Order of Police commented that the racial disparities are probably explained by the fact that officers tend to patrol higher-crime areas and that those areas have larger minority populations. However, the assumption that areas with large minority populations are high-crime areas is itself problematic. Moreover, it may be counterproductive to cite people in high-crime areas with minor traffic offenses. This could further break down police-community relations.

Some departments may look at this study and find ways to discount it. Others will use the data to identify their own biases and to rethink their strategy for traffic stops. Policing should never be materially affected by bias, but it demonstrably is, in many cases.

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