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

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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