There's no longer any doubt now after a massive new Stanford University multi-year study of nearly 100 million traffic stops that black drivers are much more likely to be pulled over by police and searched for no reason whatsoever, while white drivers are far more likely to have illegal items in their vehicles.
Using information obtained through public record requests, the Stanford Open Policing Project examined almost 100 million traffic stops conducted from 2011 to 2017 across 21 state patrol agencies, including California, Illinois, New York and Texas, and 29 municipal police departments, including New Orleans, Philadelphia, San Francisco and St. Paul, Minnesota.
The results show that police stopped and searched black and Latino drivers on the basis of less evidence than used in stopping white drivers, who are searched less often but are more likely to be found with illegal items. The study does not set out to conclude whether officers knowingly engaged in racial discrimination, but uses a more nuanced analysis of traffic stop data to infer that race is a factor when people are pulled over — and that it's occuring across the country.
"Because of this analysis, we're able to get to that anecdotal story to say this is really happening," said Sharad Goel, an assistant professor in management science and engineering at Stanford and a co-author of the study.
Police pull over about 20 million drivers across the United States each year, according to researchers. And while the extreme cases grab the spotlight, such as the fatal police shootings after traffic stops of Walter Scott in South Carolina, Samuel DuBose in Cincinnati and Philando Castile in suburban Minneapolis — all black men — most end without anyone getting hurt. Still, for drivers of color who are stopped by police, the suspicion that racial bias played a role can linger.
"There's no longer the idea of Officer Friendly, who might help you understand why they pulled you over. Now, it's about using racial profiling to control people and place fear in them," said David Lowery, founder of the Living & Driving While Black Foundation in Chicago, an advocacy group calling for an end to racial profiling.
"Then, you've got money tied up into this," he added. "Who can write the most tickets? Who can put the most people in jail and into the court system? It’s no longer about a simple traffic stop for safety."
The Stanford study sliced the data in three distinct ways to search for evidence of racial bias:
- Police stops: A "veil of darkness" test was done to analyze whether black drivers are being pulled over at a higher rate during the day than at night, when officers would have a harder time distinguishing race from a distance. After adjusting for the variation in sunset times across the year, researchers found a 5 to 10 percent drop in the share of stopped drivers after sunset who are black, suggesting black drivers are being racially profiled during the day.
- Police searches: Researchers reviewed the rate at which drivers were searched and the likelihood that those searches turned up illegal drugs and guns. There was evidence that the bar for searching black and Latino drivers is lower than that for white drivers, even though white drivers were more likely to have contraband. Across states, contraband was found in 36 percent of searches of white drivers, compared to 32 percent for black drivers and 26 percent for Latinos.
- Impact of marijuana legalization: After the legalization of recreational marijuana in Colorado and Washington state, there has been a reduction in searches of both white and minority drivers. But the search rate remains twice as high for minorities, a trend also noted in a 2017 Stanford study.
Stanford's research is based on numbers provided by state and city agencies, but not all police departments track that data or are willing to release it. While the majority of states responded to the Stanford group's public records requests and offered at least some traffic stop data, four states said they didn't have information on drivers' race and 15 failed to say whether they collect any data at all.
Ohio provided data for this study as well as Cincinnati and Columbus police departments. There's no doubt that this is happening right now, as we speak, where I live and work. Race is the major basis of policing in America today.
It must end.