African-Americans and Hispanics have long suspected they are more likely than whites to be searched and ticketed when they’re pulled over. An extensive study by Stanford University researchers has found strong evidence that this is the case.
For several years, Stanford University’s Open Policing Project has been collecting reports on the approximately 50,000 traffic stops that occur in the U.S. each day. So far, they’ve collected over 136 million records.
Since some jurisdictions offer more detail in their traffic stop reports than others, the researchers selected 64 million records from 20 states. The traffic stops were performed by state patrol officers in those states between 2011 and 2015. They then examined those records for statistically significant evidence of racial bias in how the drivers were treated.
The researchers did not consider racial disparities in the traffic stops themselves because traffic stops stem from a combination of factors, one of which is driving behavior. Therefore, any racial bias can’t be singled out as the reason for any particular traffic stop.
Interestingly, the researchers found that whites are more likely than Hispanics to be pulled over, while African-Americans are more likely than whites.
Once the drivers were stopped, however, there was statistically significant evidence that racial groups are treated differently. For example, whites were ticketed for speeding 72 percent of the time, African-Americans 75 percent of the time, and Hispanics 77 percent of the time. Meanwhile, whites were searched in 2 percent of stops, African-Americans in 3.5 percent, and Hispanics in 3.8 percent.
“After controlling for stop location, date and time, and driver age and gender — via logistic regression, as above — we find that black and Hispanic drivers have approximately twice the odds of being searched relative to white drivers,” the paper states.
Do African-Americans and Hispanics deserve to be ticketed and searched more often?
To determine whether the racial disparities might be justified, the researchers compared the total number of searches to the number where contraband was actually found. As we mentioned, even though Hispanic motorists were pulled over the least frequently, they are searched the most. Yet while contraband was found in about 28 percent of searches involving white or African-American drivers, police found contraband in only 22 percent of searches involving Hispanics.
The researchers determined there was sufficient evidence to conclude that both African-Americans and Hispanics suffer from bias in ticketing and motor vehicle searches.
This large-scale study gives us good reason to conclude that policing bias against African-Americans and Hispanics is real and remains widespread. Knowing this should give us pause. If racial bias enters into our justice system as early as traffic stops, how much justice are we getting?