The Perils of Driving While Black

Readers of this blog will not be the least bit surprised by this article in the Washington Monthly about the pervasively, undeniably racist nature of traffic stops. The article looks at the difference between stops made because of a clear violation of traffic laws and stops made solely as a pretext to try to search the vehicle.

To understand the phenomenon outside of New York City, where drivers rather than pedestrians tend to be the target of stop-and-frisk-type operations, we surveyed 2,329 drivers in and around Kansas City, a region typical of large, geographically segregated metropolitan areas in the country. The data from our survey allowed us to distinguish stops to enforce traffic safety laws—like speeding at fifteen miles per hour over the limit—from stops to investigate the driver. Our key finding is that these two types of stops differ from start to finish. In traffic safety stops, based on clear violations of the law, officers quickly issue a ticket or warning and let the driver go. In investigatory stops officers drag the stop out as they try to look at the vehicle’s interior, ask probing questions, and ultimately seek consent for a search (drivers almost always agree, telling us that they feel they have no real choice in the matter).

The key influence on who is stopped in traffic safety stops is how you drive; in investigatory stops it is who you are, and being black is the leading influence. In traffic safety stops, being black has no influence: African Americans are not significantly more likely than whites to be stopped for clear traffic safety law violations. But in investigatory stops, a black man age twenty-five or younger has a 28 percent chance of being stopped for an investigatory reason over the course of a year; a similar young white man has a 12.5 percent chance, and a similar young white woman has only a 7 percent chance. And this is after taking into account other possible influences on being stopped, like how you drive. Police focus investigatory stops on younger people, and so as people grow older they are less likely to be stopped in this way. But a black man must reach fifty—well into the graying years—before his risk of an investigatory stop drops below that of a white man under age twenty-five. Overall, black drivers are nearly three times more likely than whites to be subjected to investigatory stops.

Being black is also the leading influence on how far police officers pursue their inquisition in investigatory stops. In these stops, full-blown vehicle searches are relatively common. After taking into account other possible influences, black drivers in our survey were five times more likely than whites to be subjected to searches in investigatory stops. Searches are remarkably rare in traffic safety stops, and the driver’s race has no influence on whether the driver is searched in these stops.

This is in line with study after study done all over the country. I was kind of hoping that President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder would put a focus on this while in office but they’ve ignored it completely.

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  • rationalinks

    I’m a white male living in in the Kansas City Metro area. I’ve been stopped and asked to have my car searched on 3 different occasions (once when I was 18, 22, and 24). All three times I refused the search and only once was the issue pursued further (the stop that occurred when I was 18, the cop was denied the search warrant as he had no probable cause). I have a good friend who lives in the same area as me, we have similar jobs and similar backgrounds, but he’s African-American. He’s been stopped a total of 8 times and asked to have his car searched. He’s refused to allow the search each time. In five of those cases no further action was taken. However, in three of those incidents the officer attempted to get a search warrant, and they were granted. The searches always turned up nothing in my friend’s car.

    These results do not surprise me one bit. Something really needs to be done about this problem.

  • hackerguitar

    A good first step is education. Citizens do not know their rights when confronted by a police officer, and failure to exercise those rights often works to the citizen’s detriment.

    There are a host of really good resources – there’s a simple one on the ACLU page:

    Knowing that you can ask if you are free to leave (in many circumstances) and that the officer must justify detaining you if they decide you are not free to leave, is something that really should be better publicized.

  • otrame

    A number of years ago David Robinson–a major deity here in San Antonio due to his success at basketball and his general reputation for being a big old sweetie–was stopped in “The Dominion”, a very super ultra expensive subdivision of the city. Once the cop got a look at his ID he let him go immediately, since he had not actually committed any traffic violation. Robinson actually lived in the Dominion. He refused to make a big deal about it (though I wonder who told reporters about it, because I refuse to believe the cop did and I get the impression Robinson didn’t). So if someone as beloved as Robinson can be hassled for DWB, I imagine your average black guy who is not “where he belongs” is going to catch it all the time.

    But we are, of course, post-racial here in the US.

    PS Robinson, during his second year on the Spurs, showed up at a club where I was once. I was really happy that most people left him completely alone and let him and his date dance in peace. I was also tickled by the fact that he stood head-to-nipples taller than anyone else in the place. When you watch those guys play with other really big guys, you lose tract of the fact that they are as big as they are.

  • Gretchen

    Make investigatory stops illegal.

    We have to.

    It should not be allowed, much less encouraged, to pull someone over and search their car because you might find something illegal in it that has no connection whatsoever to the safety of their driving, when they are not specifically suspected of committing some other crime which necessitates catching and arresting them while they’re driving.

  • Ace of Sevens

    Gretchen: I think the issue is that there’s no official difference. The distinction was determined based on police behavior only.

  • smrnda

    This is no surprise to me, but I’m at least happy to see empirical data that demonstrates that cops are being racist towards Black drivers, since I keep hearing people argue that *it’s only because Black drivers argue more* or something else when it comes to rates of stops or searches. Being Black needs to stop being considered probable cause when it comes to searches and warrants.

    Though I do not know if it has the same type of official ‘stop and frisk’ policy as NYC, I’ve seen similar situations in Chicago, where cops pull over any number of Black drivers in Black regions without there being any real cause.

  • WMDKitty — Survivor

    Oh, but America isn’t racist because there aren’t any “official” racist policies… *big fuckin’ eyeroll*

  • had3

    The good thing is none of the cops in my county would do this, it’s only a problem in the counties adjacent to mine. A friend of mine in the next county says the same thing. /sarcasm

  • Collin Merenoff

    Finally the truth comes out!

    This is our racism problem, and it’s not “invisible privilege”. It’s a dereliction of well-established standards that are denied the force of law. To coin a phrase, it’s a thick white line.

    This isn’t a mystery. This isn’t a detailed devil. This is an actionable crime writ large on the wall of the Establishment. Just outlaw investigative searches and be done with it!

    I’m hoping for a similar revelation regarding imprisonment.