Category Archives: policing

Looks like a duck, Quacks like a Duck, Must be… a QUOTA

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I have long criticized the quotas that law enforcement often use in writing citations.  Revenue-generation policing is something that officers and departments deny, but it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that it happens in many places.   The State of Illinois enacted a law  that became effective on January 1, 2015 that made quotas illegal.

Here in Normal, Illinois, the local police department had been sued by officers who were allegedly punished for not meeting quotas.  That lawsuit went away with the new law, but the question of quotas most certainly hasn’t.  In early 2015, it became known that the Normal Police instituted a new rubric for measuring police officer performance.  Each officer was expected to initiate three “enforcement contacts” with citizens each shift, resulting in a citation, an ordinance violation, or a written warning.  Hmmm… that sure sounds like a quota.  But no, the Chief argued on WGLT public radio, its not a quota.  Officers don’t have to issue citations.  And its reasonable that an officer would make three enforcement contacts during a shift.  Ok. Sure.

Fast forward to late summer 2016. The State mandated Illinois Traffic Stop study data for 2015 has now been released, providing data on more than two million traffic stops state wide.  I gained access to this data last weekend. And while I am still mining the data, it does not hard to see that something strange has occurred.  After making an average of 11,861 stops a year in the prior five years (2010-2014), there was something markedly different about the 2015 report.

Traffic Stops, Normal Police Department
2010   – 12,216
2011   – 10,237
2012   – 12,117
2013   – 11,776
2014   – 12,961
2015   –  19,637

Normal PD increased its total number of traffic stops by 6,676 in a year.  2014 was already its record high of almost 12,961 stops, and a year later, the department was making just shy of 20,000 stops.  Twenty thousand.  More stops are being made in Normal than in many much larger suburbs in the Chicago-land area. When examined on a daily basis, Normal police officers made 21 more stops per day in 2015 than they did a year before.  21.More. Stops. A. Day.

The enforcement contact policy requires officers to either issue citations or written (but not verbal) warnings.  In 2014, officers issued 8,472 citations (65.3%), 367 written warnings (2.83%), and 4,122 verbal warnings (31.8%).  In 2015, while making 6,676 more traffic stops, officers only wrote 6,784 citations (34.5%).  This was a decrease of 1,688 citations. This means that 65.5% of traffic stops in Normal in 2015 received warnings – and with the exception of 899 instances where verbal warnings were given (4.58%), 11,954 motorists received written warnings (60.87%).

So, wait…  Officers stopped 21 more motorists a day.  But they issued 4 less citations a day, 8 less verbal warnings a day, and 33 more written warnings, EACH DAY.  Every Day.  So, is this good?  Or is this bad?  Well, on the one hand, if Normal had held true to past practice, and issued citations in 65 percent of cases, 12,862 individuals would have received a ticket in 2015.  But they didn’t.  Instead, the vast majority of drivers received written warnings.  That sounds good, right?  Written warning.  No ticket.  No money spent. No points.  Why the warnings?  I think officers revolted, the rebelled against the new policy.  They made the stops, but they didn’t write tickets.

But is it good?  Maybe we ought to be looking at this from the perspective of 19,637 drivers in Normal being stopped by police for a traffic offense, 12,961 of which either did not merit a citation, or the officer chose to cut the person “a break.”  I’m sure the police will spin it this way. (They will also argue that all these stops prevent drunk driving, but that’s an entirely different discussion).  But if the majority of stops were for minor trivial traffic infractions, if the majority of stops were nuisance pre textual stops, having their liberty infringed, even if for just 10 to 20 minutes, then it might be a form of harassment — all in the name of ensuring officers meet an arbitrary metric of three enforcement contacts a day.

Let’s look.  What were the stops for?  The State divides stops into four categories:  moving violations, equipment violations, license plate/registration, and commercial vehicles.   In 2014, almost three-fifths of stops were for moving violations (7771, 59.4%).  Of those stops, 4,836 were for speeding. In 2015, there were 10,092 moving violation stops (51.39%), 6,904 (35%) were for equipment violations, and 2,637 (13%) were for license plate/registation violations.   In the 2015 moving violations only half (5,979) were for speeding.  There were 817 stops for lane violations. 1,256 were for turn signal/traffic sign violations.  1,931 stops were classified as “other.”    Non-moving violation stops in Normal accounted for 6,904 incidents.  Another 2,637 individuals were stopped for license plate/registration violations.

While it sounds good that officers handed out almost 2,000 less tickets, the reality is that an awful lot of the stops Normal made were for minor offenses, often pretexts to investigate a driver.  The stops for those nuisance reasons more than doubled with a huge increase in stops for things like license plate violations, turn signal violations, and the such. This may properly be viewed as aggressive officers making stops they don’t need to be making, just so they can question and potentially harass  citizens.   OR to do this so the officer doesn’t get in trouble for not meeting his… dare I say it…. QUOTA.

I am still just beginning to “mine” the data, doing cross-year analyses, but there are two important points.   One, is that Normal PD does not appear to unfairly target African Americans.   There are differences in stops between Caucasians and African Americans, but they are relatively small (although it is harder to assess whether African Americans are being stopped disproportionately to their population in the community).   BUT what is very clear is that Normal Police targets young people.  Close to half of the 19,637 individuals stopped in 2015 were under the age of 26.   Normal PD targets young drivers, teenagers, college students, and people in their early twenties — and with a vengeance.   When a histogram is run of the age distribution of stops, it diminishes dramatically after age 26.  Here though there is a racial difference, Whites across all are groups, drop steadily in the number of stops in their 30s, 40s, and 50s.   African-Americans do not age out as smoothly in terms of police contact, and a 45 year old Black man is still more likely to be stopped than a 45 year old White man.   Again, this data still needs to be further examined.

The end result is that the police department’s stated metric of measuring police effectiveness and performance by how many stops, tickets, and arrests they make, is one in which citizens are being stopped at rates far disproportionate to the population.  Almost 20,000 people were stopped in Normal. A case can be made that many of these citizens — young citizens —  were in effect, harassed, for no other reason than an over-zealous chief wanting to make sure his officers were engaging in a minimum amount of enforcement contacts.  It is also a consequence of the stop and question everyone mentality that pervades policing today.

Next steps in my analysis will be exploring investigatory stops and comparing them with legitimate traffic safety stops, and further refining the data on age, race, and gender. But one thing is crystal clear.  On the very same day that the state of Illinois made police quotas for citations illegal, the Normal Police Department began a new performance policy that has resulted in what almost certainly looks like a quota.   With almost 20,000 stops in a year, it smells like a quota, it looks like a quota, it must be a quota. And as a result, we all lose. Maybe protecting and serving should mean more than stopping drivers for increasingly minor offenses.  Because are we really safer if the police stop a 19 year old for failing to use his turn signal properly?  Not stopping someone for failing to signal, but not signaling  100 feet before the stop.  We can, and should demand better.


Stay tuned… more to come.

An important first step — demand the immediate end of pre-textual investigatory stops

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This past week has renewed concerns about excessive use of force by police against Black Americans and minorities. Why is it that police seem so quick to escalate encounters with African American males?  Why is it that minorities distrust the police in ways that Caucasians don’t?  Are these problems just a reflection of a few “bad cops,” and not that of the vast majority who are dedicated to “protecting and serving” the communities they work in, or is there a deeper problem in policing?  Are all cops racist?  Is there institutional racism in within policing? All are important questions, but they all boil down to the fact that when police use strategies and tactics that disproportionately target minorities, and when they act differently in two identical scenarios with the sole exception of the race of the individual involved, it is discriminatory behavior. And it is a primary part of the lack of trust that exists between minority communities and the police today.

If there is a true desire to find solutions to the problems of lack of trust in policing, there is one action that each and every police department can take right now.  Immediately. And it is fairly simple. End the use of pre-textual traffic stops. Cease using the traffic code to conduct investigatory stops immediately. The benefits would be substantial.

What are investigatory pre-textual stops?  A pre-textual stop is a traffic stop used as a pretense or excuse to conduct a criminal investigation.  It is a tool that was developed by law enforcement in the 1980s as a way to prosecute the war on drugs. The setup is simple.  Identify a car that you, the officer, thinks looks suspicious, maybe there are young males in it, maybe it is the make and model of the vehicle, but regardless, you have a hunch that you want to investigate this vehicle.  So you look for the most minor of traffic offenses to create the pretext for a traffic stop.  I’m not talking about someone flying down the road 15 miles over the speed limit—that is a legitimate traffic safety issue.  I’m talking about driving with mud on a license plate, a broken license plate light, failure to use a turn signal properly.  Not failing to use a turn signal, but not using it 100 feet before a turn.

Other examples include weaving in the same lane of traffic, and driving down the left lane of the interstate for more than a half-mile, or driving with a parking permit hanging from the rearview window, among many others.  These are extremely minor violations of the traffic code that officers use as a pretext to establish probable cause to stop the vehicle. Once stopped, the officer has “seized” the driver and passengers of the vehicle.  He can question the driver, and all passengers.  Ask for identification, driver’s license, proof of insurance, registration, run the person’s names through the computer for active warrants.   If there is  reasonable suspicion that the driver is armed and dangerous, ask him or her to get out of the vehicle, and do a frisk, or pat-down of the outer clothing for weapons.  Scan the interior of the vehicle—doing a plain view search for weapons, open bottles, and contraband.

But there is more.  The officer is trained to ask provocative questions designed to put the driver on edge as a way to manipulate the him or her to consent to a search.

“Do you have anything on you that would cause me or my partner to blow up?”  Throwing him off guard, the driver quickly says no.  So, they the officer follows up with,

“No? Then you won’t mind if I do a quick search?”  This is psychological manipulation intended to get the citizen to waive his constitutional rights.

All of this is done independently of the “official” purpose for the stop, the issuance of a warning or citation for a traffic offense.  But the traffic violation isn’t really the goal. It is a means to conduct a criminal investigation, something he otherwise lacks reasonable suspicion or probable cause to do.  The officer does not possess the necessary reasonable articulable facts would that lead him to believe that the person is engaged in or about to engage in criminal behavior, so he probes, ask questions, and manipulates the citizen in the hope that he or she will consent to a search.  But in a traffic stop, there is NO reasonable suspicion of criminal wrong-doing, there is only a hunch, and a minor traffic violation, and often, the most trivial of violations.

I began by stating that these investigatory stops were originally designed to conduct the war on drugs.  In the past 20 years they have expanded, as police have institutionalized them into standard practice. The investigatory stop, police training manual author Charles Rensberg tells us, is a type of police traffic stop that “seeks to maximize the number of citizen contacts in vehicle stops during each shift and, through specific investigative techniques, to explore the full arrest potential of each.”  In the town where I live, the police department has an enforcement contact policy.  Each officer is expected to make three citizen contacts a shift, resulting in a citation, written warning, or ordinance violation. They uses investigatory stops all the time.

The use of the pre-textual stop by itself is disturbing. It is a violation of an individual’s constitutional rights to be free from unreasonable search and seizures.  But there is more to the problem.  The investigatory pretextual stop is NOT used systematically against all drivers.  Officers disproportionately use the tactics in contacts with minorities and young people.  My 18 year old son has endured two of these stops in the past 9 months.  One for a license plate light violation (the license plate light had blown out), and the other for failure to use a turn signal properly.  These stops are not just an annoyance, they are a humiliation.  Look at the text message I received from him during the most recent one.

Screen Shot 2016-07-10 at 2.21.45 PM
He knew to say no to a consent search, but also believed that it would end up bad if he didn’t comply.   “I didn’t do shit.”

This is not an extreme example.  It happens over and over again.  While my son is Caucasian, he is young.  The reality is that most adult Caucasian drivers rarely experience these stops. If they get stopped by the police it is for a legitimate traffic safety stop.  They were speeding 15 miles over the limit. They were driving at night with the headlights off.  Those are legitimate traffic offenses, in which we NEED police on patrol to keep the streets safe.  And if someone get a speeding ticket, they might not be happy about it, but they know they deserve it. They own it.  “Yeah, I got caught.”  But would they have the same perception if they were stopped again and again for turn signal violations, asked obnoxious questions, and searched?

Yet, this is exactly the reality that exists for minorities.  And minorities experience the humiliations that come from them, over and over again. It was because of racial profiling that several states developed state-wide legislatively mandated traffic stop data collection, in which officers are required by law to record information about every single traffic stop. The data is very clear that when we look at the stated reasons for traffic stops, that minorities, particularly African Americans, are subjected to these tactics far more frequently than Caucasians.

Now, police will make plenty of excuses, claiming that they don’t target minorities. They will insist that they aren’t racist. And to be fair they have been trained, over and over again, that this is good police work, and isn’t racist. They target vehicles that meet profiles, and it just happens that minorities fit many of these profiles.  There are plenty of excuses, and I’ll save them for another essay, but what is important is that Blacks experience pre-textual investigatory stops far more often than Caucasians do, and the end result is that has been a significant drop in trust of the police.  Blacks expect to be stopped.  They expect to be harassed by police. They expect to be treated as second-class citizens. They expect to be subjected to these humiliations.  White people don’t normally have these expectations, because with the exception of very young drivers, and even then only in some communities, they simply do not experience these types of stops.  The end result is that many Blacks don’t trust the police, and when there is a lack of trust, when there is a conflict, there is a much greater likelihood of that conflict escalating.  If I don’t trust you, I’m far more likely to be belligerent. And if the police officer detects “attitude,” he is far more likely to give it back. Over time, it creates a pre-disposition in the officer’s mind that when he stops a Black person, there is a great likelihood of conflict, and perhaps danger.

If we want to make immediate changes to begin the process of diffusing a small part of the tension on our streets, it is in the power of each and every police chief.   Instruct their officers to end the use of investigatory stops immediately.  Demand that pretextual stops be ended.  Make it crystal clear that this is not good policing, nor is it protecting and serving the community when you treat an entire class of drivers differently, often entirely because of their race.  Nor does it matter that the Supreme Court has said this behavior is permissible.  Just because it is legal does not mean it is right.

Define a list of legitimate traffic safety issues, and limit traffic stops to those purposes.  Stop the practice of using traffic stops to do what you couldn’t do if the person was on the street.  And while we are at it, stop the practice of making law enforcement a revenue generation process. Will this potentially diminish drug arrests?  Sure.    But if there is anything the last forty years should have taught us, it is that the war on drugs has been a monumental failure, and needs to end.

Will it solve the problem of excessive use of force? No, this is just one important step.  There is a fundamental need for more training in conflict management, and more training that focuses on the de-escalation of violence.  But ending pre textual investigatory stops will take the first essential step, to restore confidence.  Call your local police chief and sheriff and demand that they end the use of pre-textual investigatory stops now.  And if the police chief or sheriff won’t do it, then the legislatures of every state need to demand they do it.

Traffic Safety and Investigatory Stops: Sources of Mistrust and Racial Disparity

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The following is the text of my presentation to the College of Applied Science and Technology Spring Meeting as the Outstanding Researcher for 2014-2015.  

April 28, 2015

Thank you.  I promise to keep this brief.   In deciding what parts of my research to focus on in my talk, I didn’t really have any clue of how relevant what I chose was, given what is now happening in Baltimore.   While I am not talking today about the use of force, I am going to talk about how traffic stops and vehicle searches are used in the war on drugs, and how the primary strategy utilized, what I call pretextual or investigatory stops, are racially disparate, and result in deep-seated mistrust by minority populations.

Since the early 1970s crime control efforts in America have focused on what Ronald Reagan and George Bush later termed “the war on drugs,” And since the 1980s, federal law enforcement agencies have widely promoted the use of traffic stops as one of the primary ways of fighting that war.   Because every time we get into our car, we violate some aspect of the traffic code.  Whether it is speeding, or failing to signal properly, or having a broken license plate light (which you can’t see of course), or driving in the left lane of the highway for a half-mile, ANY TIME you get in your car you are at the mercy of the police, who in their vast discretion can stop you, IF THEY CHOOSE TO.   In fact, the late Bill Stuntz, probably the leading expert in the world on criminal procedure once said, “there is no rule of law on the road — there is just the rule of official discretion.”

The Supreme Court has enabled the use of traffic stops as a way of fighting the war on drugs, by providing what I call a “constitutional toolbox” of legal doctrines that expand police power.   Police can stop anyone for any reason as long as they have objective probable cause of a traffic violation.  Their underlying motivation does not matter.  The traffic stop can be a pretext to a criminal investigation, and the Court is ok with that.  Police can arrest for any reason, including fine-only misdemeanor offenses;  if they arrest, they can search the arrestees person and the passenger compartment of their vehicle, without a warrant, as long as it is reasonable to believe that evidence of the crime of arrest would be found.  Police can bring out a K9 to do a narcotics sniff at any traffic stop, without having ANY suspicion.    They can impound a car, and then do an inventory search.  They can ask provoking questions to gain consent to do a search.   The toolbox is expansive.

But in thinking about vehicle stops, it is important to recognize that not all stops are equal.  Charles Epp and his co-authors in their book Pulled Over: How Police Stops Define Race and Citizenship argue that we need to contrast legitimate traffic safety stops from investigatory stops.  The former includes those stops that represent true traffic safety issues.  You know — when you are driving 12 miles over the limit down Gregory, and get busted by the Normal PD.  That is a legitimate traffic safety stop.  AND the people who get stopped, while annoyed, usually “own it” – “yup, I was speeding.”

Survey data suggests that this perception holds true for both Whites and Blacks.    But when we are talking about investigatory stops, we are talking about the use of those extremely minor traffic violations as the reason for the stop.  You know –  the license plate light, mud on the license plate, the ISU parking tag in your windshield, weaving in the same lane.    These are pretextual stops.  When you are stopped not for failing to signal a turn, but for failing to signal 100 feet in advance of a turn, that is a pretextual stops.  These are stops that are the starting point for a criminal investigation.   And what we find is that these types of stops occur far often to minorities (and in college towns, for young people) than to White people.

So here is what happens.  The officer has a hunch – or maybe he profiles a vehicle – or maybe he sees a young Black man in a vehicle, or a group of them, and so he looks for a reason to stop the car.  He makes the stop.   And then either makes an arrest for a minor offense, or he brings out the dog, or seeks consent to do a search.  All with the goal of netting contraband and making a bigger arrest.

If he wants consent, the officer will often use leading questions, designed to throw the driver off kilter, and to manipulate them into giving consent.  For example. “Is there anything on you that I need to know about?  Any guns, drugs, knifes, anything crazy that’s gunna blow me and my partner up?”   Yes, officer, I am a suicide bomber in training.     I’ve heard examples of people being asked “any crack pipes, bongs, or grenades?”    All of this is to get you to say “OF COURSE NOT”  and then when he asks the 64,000 dollar question:  “So you don’t mind if I take a look?” It puts you into the position of agreeing – so not to raise suspicion.  After all, you just said you didn’t have anything on you.   And just like that POOF — you have waived your Fourth Amendment rights.

As I said, these tactics are widespread.  They appear in training manuals,  the DEA has instructed thousands of cops in their use,  They are institutionalized practice, and police leaders know full well that they primarily target minorities.   And that there is racial disparity in these stops. It might have started as efforts to interdict drug couriers, but it has now become ingrained into the very core of policing.  They are institutionalized practice.

The problem with these stops is that they don’t occur for all of us.  Most white people – outside the age group of 18-25 NEVER experience them.  White adults are almost never asked if they have a grenade on them.  BUT Black people and Latinos – and all minorities — experience these stops over and over and over.  They are paper cuts, again and again.   And they are the primary reason Black people feel a lack of trust towards the police.   But White people rarely experience these stops.  When they get stopped they get a ticket or a warning and are done.   Yet the process is only beginning for Black people.  BUT why stop minorities and not White people?  Is it implicit racial bias?  Probably some.  Do they fit profiles?  Sometimes.  Is it perceptions about criminality? (perhaps, but  the result of stops show they are more likely to find contraband when they stop whites).   Are Black people more likely to be criminals?  Well from drug surveys we know that Whites and Blacks use drugs at the same rates.  We know they sell drugs at the same rates.  BUT Whites sell to friends and family behind closed doors, while Blacks sell to strangers in open-air markets.   So, it is certainly easier to go after Blacks.  AND if the total number of arrests is what all that matter, then do what is easy.

My research involves investigating these stops.  Thanks to concerns about racial profiling, the State of Illinois has mandated that every traffic stop in the state be logged.  And today there is ten year’s of data on traffic stops, approximately 15 million observations, 1.2 million alone from 2013.   The state uses estimated minority driving populations to calculate “racial profiling ratios” and to be able to say that Normal PD is 1.5 times as likely to stop Blacks as it is to stop Whites.   But those estimates have limitations.  It is hard to tell exactly how many White People and how many Minorities drive in a jurisdiction.  The data also is limited by under-reporting and lack of compliance by some agencies. But the data is still valuable, and I have begun using it to look more closely at what it can teach us.    For today’s presentation I created a subset of 2013 data, consisting of all stops in Bloomington-Normal by the Normal PD, Bloomington PD, ISU PD, and McLean County Sheriff.  About 26,000 stops.   Broken down into stops for moving violations (things including, but not limited to speeding):  16,005.   Equipment violations (7,139)  – these include a long laundry list of possible violations;  And license plate and registration issues (2,888).

I looked at the reason for the stop by Race.  I used just White and Black, as the relative number of other minorities are small, and the data for Latinos is often inaccurate because the determination of race is done by the officer.  And what we see is that Whites are more likely to be stopped for Moving Violations (the primary category for traffic safety stops, although this includes several pretextual ones as well), and Blacks more likely to be stopped for equipment and license plate violations.  The latter two categories are more closely associated with investigatory stops.   For moving violations, 60% of Whites were stopped for speeding, compared to only 42% of Blacks. Yet, lane violations and traffic sign and signal violations are disproportionately experienced by Black drivers.

I created two measures attempting to capture investigatory stops.  The most conservative of which was to just take any case where the driver was asked to consent to a search of his person, or his vehicle,  OR if a K9 was brought out.   By definition if the officers wants to search, he investigating something beyond a traffic offense.  Using this crude measure, I found that only 4% of Whites in BloNo experienced these, but almost 10 percent of Blacks did.  If we remove people under the age of 25, that number drops to 2.5% for Whites. It is not until Blacks reach 60 years old where they are equally likely to be subjected to a request for a search.  60 years old.    A second less conservative indicator was created by adding in stops for license plate and tag violations.   Here it went up to 14 percent for Whites, but almost 23 percent for Blacks, an 8 percent difference.    DO minorities experience investigatory stops more often in Bloomington-Normal?  Yes.  Is Bloomington-Normal Ferguson or Baltimore?  No.   But these disparities are real.  And they are the direct result of deliberate, institutionalized practice and training.

Finally, I looked at the result of stops.  Do people get citations or warnings?  What I found was a virtual 50/50 split, BUT with huge differences by agency.  Bloomington and ISU PD give warnings in more than 2/3 of cases.   The Sheriff gives warnings in 58%.  BUT here in Normal, 2/3 of drivers get tickets.   No surprise there.  I did find something interesting,  in Bloomington-Normal, Whites are more likely than Blacks, to get citations — with the strange exception of ISU, which cites Blacks at a 8% higher rate.

That is a teaser of a much larger project.  I am working with two talented graduate students to examine traffic stops in university communities, and trying to explain why ISU PD has such a high minority Black to White ratio, even though it is one of the most progressive agencies around. I am beginning a broader examination of traffic safety stops vs investigatory stops, using multivariate methods, and looking at data from several states, and I am also using the Illinois data to  explore the judicial impact of recent decisions by looking for evidence in changes in police practices after court decisions are handed down.
Thank you.

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