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.