By Daniel C. Vock
Many states collect information about police traffic stops to determine whether racial profiling exists. But lawmakers, police and civil rights groups disagree on how best to use that data and, in some cases, on what it really means.
Eight years ago, Illinois began requiring police departments, including the state police force, to keep track of traffic stops to see whether their officers practiced racial profiling—stopping black or Hispanic motorists more often than whites because of their skin color.
Now, a civil rights group wants a federal investigation of the Illinois state police based largely on the data collected under the law, which was sponsored by Barack Obama when he was a state senator.
After examining the data, the Illinois chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union says state troopers ask to search the cars of black and Hispanic drivers more often than those of white drivers, in cases where police have no legal grounds to search the cars on their own without the driver’s consent. But state police are more than 2.5 times as likely to find illegal items (such as alcohol, drugs or stolen property) when searching the vehicles of whites compared to those of Hispanics. Alcohol is the most common item police find among all groups, the ACLU claims, but whites are the most likely to have drugs and drug paraphernalia.
The complaint is not focused on specific allegations of prejudiced behavior. What it alleges is that state officials hardly look at racial profiling information at all. The law requiring the collection of traffic stop data created a panel to review the results, but the slots were never filled and the group never met. “Nobody does anything with the data,” says Harry Grossman of the Illinois ACLU. “We are the only ones that have done anything.”
The situation in Illinois is typical. Nearly a dozen states require police to collect data about racial bias in traffic stops, but in most cases, little use is made of the data. States compile reports that just sit on a shelf.
Wisconsin had a law requiring the collection of data about racial profiling, but it lasted less than a year. The statute, passed by Wisconsin Democrats before they lost control of state government in 2010, was barely on the books before it was repealed by the Republicans who now dominate the legislature.
Republicans cited objections from local police as a major reason for repealing the law.
Kenosha County Sheriff David Beth says filling out the forms took so much time, it was the equivalent of taking two of his deputies off the streets for a year. The forms asked for exhaustive data on the vehicle, location, driver and passengers in every stop. For each passenger in the car, there was an additional half-page form; stopping a van that carried six people required nine pages of forms, according to Beth. The sheriff says he saw little benefit from the new requirements. “The state of Wisconsin,” he says, “had no plan what to do with this information once it got turned in.”
Even where states do use the data, there are arguments about what types of information help determine whether racial profiling has occurred.
That was the controversy in Missouri, where Ladue, a wealthy white suburb of St. Louis, hired a Texas criminology professor to determine whether its police were targeting minorities, as implied by the state attorney general. The professor, Brian Withrow, looked at the numbers and found that they proved nothing at all. In fact, he called the entire state formula used to find racial profiling “inept.”
The problem, as Withrow saw it, was that the state compared the percentage of minority motorists stopped to the percentage of minorities living in the community. But that assumes that the only drivers local police stop are those who reside in their city. Ladue has two interstate highways running through it, and city officers say 93 percent of the people they stop do not live in Ladue. States could benefit from using better information, such as crash data, he says, and by recording the hometown of stopped motorists. “The residential population,” Withrow says, “is not the same as the driving population.”
One difficulty with racial profiling laws, he argues, is that jurisdictions that record traffic stop data often see an initial decrease in the number of stops made. Officers see the stops as extra work and sometimes fear that they may be disciplined because of the information they report, he explains.
But overall, Withrow says racial profiling laws help police departments operate more intelligently.
One lesson that data collection has taught police departments, he says, is that basing decisions on where to station cops to collect traffic stop data becomes a “self-fulfilling prophecy.” In other words, “the more officers that are down there, the more stops that are made, and you’ll think crime is going up there. So you assign officers and more stops are being made.” He argues that police assignments ought to be made on the basis of other factors, such as calls for service, rather than on the number of arrests.
An aggressive approach
A year ago, Paul Williams became police chief in Springfield, Missouri, promising to rethink the way the department handled complaints about racial profiling.
Some black residents had complained about racial profiling in Springfield before Williams became chief, but they did not have enough data to prove that it was a problem, explains Francine Pratt, who just concluded a term as president of the Springfield NAACP. In a city where minorities make up less than a tenth of population, the previous chief assured the black community that racial profiling was not happening but did not share much information with the public.
Williams, who is white, approached the issue head on. He went through state data on traffic stops and took a hard look at 28 officers who had stopped a disproportionately high number of minority drivers. He told supervisors to check on whether outside factors, like a cop’s assignment to a minority neighborhood or to a gang control unit, explained the high numbers. Williams also looked at police disciplinary records, to see whether the officers had received previous complaints of racial bias.
What Williams did was more rigorous than anything the department had done before, and it was more public. The new chief consulted with the local NAACP to see whether they had any concerns with the department’s analysis. When all the numbers were in, Williams found there was no evidence of racial profiling.
“If there’s somebody doing something wrong,” he said, “I want to find out and ferret that out. But if nobody is doing anything wrong, I really want the public to know that.”
The review eased some fears among the NAACP members, Pratt says, but the best part is that the process will continue. In fact, police are working with a local professor to break down the data by individual neighborhoods. “It’s not just that a report came out and (the police said) ‘This is what we’re doing’ and that takes care of it,” she says. “I think if that was the case, then the community would not be satisfied.”
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Contact writer Daniel C. Vock [email protected]. Stateline.org granted permission to reprint this article.
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