The death of Philando Castile on July 6, 2016, shined an unflattering light on the issue of police stops. Castile, who was stopped 52 times for minor traffic violations prior to his deadly encounter, was returning from grocery shopping with his girlfriend and her daughter when he was pulled over for an ID check on the basis of Castile’s nose being similar to the given description for a robbery suspect. After being warned that Castile had a licensed gun in his possession and after being told before and after the shooting that Castile is only trying to secure his wallet, a panicky police officer shot Castile seven times, killing him. The rash of police stops and the seeming criminalization of simply driving have created an erosion of trust in the police. This is particularly true among the Black communities.
Starting in 2015, the Stanford Computational Journalism Lab and the Stanford School of Engineering collected and analyzed traffic stop data from 31 states in an attempt to discover bias patterns to the way the police conduct stops based on reasonable suspicion, a term used to indicate the police don’t have enough evidence to arrest an individual but have enough information to inquire and ask questions. The result of this, an analysis of the patrol stops of 20 states, found that there are significant racial disparities. While some of these disparities can be explained away through mitigating circumstances, such as extensive police presence in Black neighborhoods and differences in driving patterns, evidence was found that bias was a major factor.
“Implicit bias certainly plays a role in policing and disparate outcomes based on race, but it is not the only cause. Law, policy and practice play a significant role in the negative outcomes on communities of color,” said Glenn Harris, president of Race Forward: the Center for Racial Justice Innovation. “In order to guard against implicit bias, we first have to first accept that it exists.”
The Stanford Open Policing Project
On a typical day, more than 50,000 drivers are pulled over by the police in this nation. Road safety constitutes the largest portion of police functions in the modern day; it is more likely you will interact with a police officer while you are behind your steering wheel than in any other scenario.
This is why cases like Castile and Sandra Bland, whose death (which was ruled a suicide) after being locked up in a Texas county jail cell for three days was triggered in part by a pullover for allegedly failing to signal a lane change and dubious claims of assaulting a police officer continue to be troubling. For African-Americans, there is the very real threat that a police stop may escalate into something more than a ticket.
“The reasons behind the discrepancies [in police stop and traffic-related arrest rates between African-American and white drivers] can be a combination of personal or individual bias [conscious or unconscious/implicit] on the part of individual officers and/or institutional racism or bias that manifests itself in traffic stops, tickets, arrests,” Ronnie Dunn, associate professor of urban studies at Cleveland State University, said. “Under aggressive, proactive policing, the police often run the license plates of Blacks and Hispanics with the expectation [expectancy theory] that it will turn up a warrant or suggestion the driver is somehow otherwise legally encumbered, which then justifies a stop and further investigation for drugs, guns or some other type of contraband.”
Fueled by a growing rash of protests, a national conversation has sprung up about the nature of racial bias in policing. For example, many have been forced to consider if Castile and Bland’s cases would have played out differently if they were white. Without clear indications of racism, it is difficult to make claims of institutionalized racism. In New York City, under the administration of Michael Bloomberg, for example, high rates of stop and frisk of Black and Latino males were credited to a heightened police presence in predominately Black and Latino neighborhoods.
To address this, researchers at Stanford University filed record requests for traffic-stop data from state patrol officers in all 50 states. Of the 50, 31 replied with the requested information. Twenty states gave enough detailed information to make race-based analysis possible. Of the 19 that did not respond, the excuses given ranged from not collecting the data in electronic form to having state laws that prohibit the sharing of such data to no reply at all in some cases.
A review of the raw data indicated that officers stopped Black drivers at higher rates than white drivers, while Latinos are stopped at similar or lower rates to whites, regardless of age or gender. Once stopped, Blacks and Latinos are ticketed, searched and arrested more often than whites. Black drivers were 20 percent more likely to be ticketed instead of warned than white drivers, while Latino drivers were 30 percent more likely. Black and Latino drivers are twice as likely to be searched than white drivers.
The reality of police stops is that a police officer does not need much justification to pull you over, various Supreme Court decisions have found that suspicion is enough to perform a stop. In reality rationals can be applied after the search is completed. In other words, an officer is allowed to “look for a reason” to justify a stop after the stop is initiated.
This tends to lead to rationales being given that could not be seen from within the patrol car or that are generic, such as a drug search. “Officers often administer a ticket after conducting a pretextual stop to justify their actions,” Dunn said. “My research has shown that Blacks are more likely to be stopped/ticketed for non-moving violations, i.e., driving under suspension or seatbelt violations, both of which are hard to detect, than are whites, who are the majority of the speeders [which is more readily observable] in my study.”
This phenomenon is referred to as “driving while Black.” In many circumstances, the reason for being pulled over is being a Black driver, particularly in areas that are generally perceived to be “non-Black.” While this cannot be vocalized or acknowledged, the sole reason a Black driver was pulled over had nothing to do with his driving.
In a report released by Missouri’s State Attorney General’s office, Black drivers in Missouri were found to be 75 percent more likely than whites to be pulled over in 2016 – the highest level in 17 years. In Ferguson, where Michael Brown was killed by a white officer in 2014, a Black driver was 73 times more likely to be stopped by a police officer than a white driver, in proportion to the state’s racial breakdown. This is fueled by what a 2015 U.S. Department of Justice report called a profit-driven municipal court system that targeted Black drivers and institutionalized racial bias. A quarter of Ferguson’s municipal budget is drawn from traffic fines.
While racism and implicit bias do exist in policing today, what is more likely in most cases is institutionalized racism, or the use of policy to intentionally or coincidentally disadvantage and penalize a race. If a police department emphasizes the number of traffic tickets given out per month, allocates additional personnel to “problematic” nonwhite neighborhoods and trains their officers to pay additional attention to Black and Latino drivers, then the end result would have to be the perception of officer bias. In reality, the racism in place is top-down, destroying the community trust that is essential to policing for financial or ideological gains.
The Nature of Institutionalized Racism
Finding viable solutions to solve the policing bias problem may be a challenge. The reasons for that are:
- Most people have implicit bias in some form;
- To resolve implicit bias, you must make it explicit or recognizable. This is something most people are either unable or unwilling to do, as it is admitting that you have the bias in the first place; and
- Implicit biases have been weaponized as a means to gain or retain power in this country since its formation. There are those who are well-served by denying such biases exist and exploiting them covertly.
An example of this was seen in the 2016 presidential election. During a speech, the Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, called Donald Trump’s core supporters “a basket of deplorables.” She was referring to the fact that many of Trump’s supporters were explicitly biased, including known white supremacists and members of the Extreme Right. She was hoping that those among Trump’s supporters who may be mildly implicitly biased would be horrified by the extremes of others that follow him and back away.
Trump, who had and has cornerstones in his platforms that reflect extreme views on Muslims and Mexicans, among others, used Clinton’s clumsy language against her, claiming that Clinton just called all Republicans deplorable. At the same time, Trump regularly had rallies begin and end with the crowd chanting “Build that wall!” in reference to a proposed physical barrier along the whole of the U.S.-Mexico border.
Since the 1600s, where the notion of race was first introduced in Virginia to help break the working class’s land claims and quiet threats to the burgeoning plantation system, the notion of “them vs. us” has been used to great effect to justify a host of societal ills, ranging from slavery and the forced removal of Native Americans from ancestral lands to “white flight,” “redlining” and police aggression. In a sense, the biases that plague society today were specifically encouraged and nurtured — via media depictions, by legislation and government-public interactions, and by economic influence — by those who directly benefit from them.
“The Stanford study has revealed what many of us know: that racial profiling is rampant,” Sean J. Young, the legal director of ACLU Georgia, said. “It is our view that racial profiling is a silent nationwide cancer that continuously funnels people of color into the criminal justice system and is the result of 240 years of slavery and 90 years of legalized segregation. Racial profiling is blatantly unconstitutional; it is unconstitutional to target someone for arrest based solely on their race. It is also ineffective, as it breaks trust in the constituency the police is sworn to serve.”
Using the Muslim entry ban and the heightened push for deportations of Mexican undocumented immigrants as examples, Young points out that addressing racial profiling must first start with taking on the “them vs. us” myth head on.
“If you can get away with bullying someone perceived weaker, human nature has shown a propensity to do so,” he said. “The use of discriminatory laws, police bullying, economic funneling from Black neighborhoods to wealthy white ones … these are all tools of racial oppression and facets of the racial legacy we all inherited from slavery.
“Be it the police detaining suspected undocumented immigrants following a police stop to the blocking of Muslims at the border from entry, this is part of a continuous campaign of racial profiling of brown people. It is the demonization of a person solely on the basis of his skin color, and it’s not right.”
It is unclear what, if anything, can resolve the question of racial profiling with the police. While sensitivity and de-escalation training have been implemented to some success in many police departments, such as Dallas-Fort Worth, changing the attitude of the patrol officer will not help if the policies he must obey are still biased.
It may be on the people themselves to demand more from their police.
“Communities across the nation are challenging policy and practice of police departments,” Harris said. “Historically, the Department of Justice has played a critical role in holding police departments accountable with reform processes. With the new Administration, the ability and the will of the federal government to play that role are deeply in question.
“This is why it’s more important than ever that individual communities demand that their police departments take proactive steps to address implicit bias and institutional bias in policy and practice.”
“The protest and demonstrations that evolved over the past several years in response to police shootings of Blacks has to translate into political power and be used to enact public policies to address these issues. Legislation is needed at the federal, state and local levels prohibiting racial profiling and requiring the collection of racial demographic data on all police initiated stops of citizens, not just those resulting from a traffic stop or ticket,” Dunn, associate professor of urban studies at Cleveland State University concluded.