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100 Million Traffic Stops Show Massive Racial Bias in Policing

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WEST VALLEY CITY, UT - MARCH 2: West Valley City patrol officer Gatrell performs a traffic stop on the first day of use of his newly-issued body camera attached to the side of a pair of glasses on March 2, 2015 in West Valley City, Utah. West Valley City Police Department has issued 190 Taser Axon Flex body cameras for all it's sworn officers to wear starting today. (Photo by George Frey/Getty Images)

There is racial bias in policing, and a team of Stanford University researchers has erased any shadow of reasonable doubt about it. (Facts can’t do much about unreasonable doubt.) The Stanford Open Policing Project data includes nearly 100 million police stops over six years from 50 state and municipal police departments, finding powerful evidence of bias not just in who gets stopped but in what happens next.

While “officers generally stop black drivers at higher rates than white drivers, and stop Hispanic drivers at similar or lower rates than whites,” there could conceivably be multiple explanations for that. But once a driver has been stopped, black and Hispanic drivers are much more likely to be ticketed, searched and arrested than white drivers. In fact, black drivers are 20 percent more likely and Latino drivers are 30 percent more likely to be ticketed than white drivers. It doesn’t stop there, though—they’re also twice as likely to be searched as white drivers.

And are searches of black and Latino drivers more likely to turn up contraband? Nope. White and black drivers were about equally likely to be found with contraband: 36 percent and 32 percent, respectively. Just 26 percent of Latino drivers were found with something illegal. The Stanford researchers designed a test of the data which found “police require less suspicion to search black and Hispanic drivers than whites. This double standard is evidence of discrimination.”

key defense from the Fraternal Order of Police was that officers are more likely to be patrolling in high-crime areas, which are more likely to have a lot of people of color, and therefore, it’s completely reasonable the police would be stopping more people of color. But without even stopping to pull apart all the claims embedded in that defense, there’s this: The researchers looked at whether black drivers are equally likely to be pulled over at night, when it’s harder for police to see drivers as cars go by. And guess what! “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.”

It doesn’t take a police officer sitting there thinking in so many words, “I want to pull over and ticket some black people” for policing to be racially biased or outright racist. If black drivers are more likely to be pulled over than white ones—which they are—and black and Hispanic drivers are more likely to be ticketed or searched than white ones—which they are—and white drivers are the most likely to be caught with illegal items—which they are—and black drivers are less likely to be pulled over at night when police can’t see them clearly—which they are—well, there goes the very last shadow of a reasonable doubt. Which was already more of a shadow of a shadow in a figment of someone’s imagination, anyway.

 

 

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