Traffic stops target blacks
Md. police searching African-Americans disproportionately
Black motorists in Maryland are stopped and searched by police at higher rates than their white counterparts, despite being less likely in many jurisdictions to be found with illicit drugs or other contraband, according to statewide traffic stop data.
In Baltimore County, black drivers were targeted in 50 percent of reported traffic stops by county police and 53 percent of vehicle searches between 2013 and this year, according to data from the Maryland Statistical Analysis Center, despite black people making up just 27 percent of the county’s population.
In Anne Arundel County, black motorists accounted for 29 percent of stops and 35 percent of searches. Black people make up just 16 percent of the population in Arundel.
In Howard County, black drivers were targeted in 37 percent of stops and 43 percent of searches, despite black people making up just 18 percent of the population. After being pulled over in Howard for seat belt violations — one of the most common offenses tracked — black motorists were 87 percent more likely than white motorists to be searched.
While black motorists stopped in the
three suburban counties were more likely to be searched, they were less likely to be found carrying illegal contraband than white motorists. In Howard County, contraband was found on 16 percent of black motorists who were searched, but 23 percent of white motorists.
The data, which police are required to report to the analysis center, reflects a national trend long denounced by civil rights leaders. It also mirrors data found more recently in Baltimore, where the Department of Justice has slammed police for discriminatory practices.
Ian Mance, a staff attorney at the North Carolina-based nonprofit Southern Coalition for Social Justice — which obtained the Maryland data through a public records request and compiled it in a new, searchable online database — said the data reflects discrimination even when controlling for factors such as the initial offenses for which motorists were stopped.
“Race is the single biggest predictor of someone being treated more punitively,” Mance said. “Namely, blackness is a pretty good indicator of whether a search will occur or not.”
The data has its limitations. The Southern Coalition for Social Justice notes that “some datasets are incomplete or remain unreported.” And the state law that governs the reporting process does not require police to report all types of stops.
Among the types that do not have to be reported are those based on the use of technologies such as radar, which the ACLU of Maryland has called “necessary to any analysis of racially biased traffic stops.”
Critics of such analyses have questioned whether the data actually depict discrimination, given that each traffic stop is based on a range of factors not easily reflected in spreadsheets and data sets.
The Governor’s Office of Crime Control and Prevention, which releases an annual report on traffic stop data, has long determined that “no definitive conclusions” could be reached about the effect of race or ethnicity on traffic stops in Maryland — in part because of “omitted variables” such as drivers’ past history of traffic violations and their driving behavior prior to being stopped.
Lt. Ryan Frashure, a spokesman for the Anne Arundel County Police Department, said the department “continually provides our officers training in fair and impartial policing” and has “strict policies detailing biased based profiling.”
Whenever a search is conducted during a traffic stop in the county, he said, “it is a result of probable cause developed by the officer(s) or after a driver’s consent if an officer believes some type of criminal activity is afoot.”
“The safety of our citizens is paramount and conducting traffic enforcement is key in fighting and solving crimes.”
In Harford County, black drivers were targeted in 26 percent of stops and 34 percent of searches. The population is 13.6 black.
Kyle Anderson, a spokesman for the county sheriff’s office, said it is “committed to unbiased policing and the equitable treatment of all persons and, as such, biased based policing is strictly forbidden and allegations of such misconduct are immediately investigated.”
He said the sheriff’s office “uses a focused, data-driven strategy to identify high crash locations and areas having a substantial number of criminal acts” in its traffic enforcement, and “strives to create an environment that leads to fewer crashes, injuries, deaths and criminal acts.”
Police and sheriff’s departments in Baltimore, Carroll and Howard counties did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Wednesday, or said they needed more time to analyze the data.
Traffic stops by the Baltimore Police Department are not reflected in the data. The city department does not appear to be in compliance with the state law that requires the data be reported. Baltimore police spokesman T.J. Smith said he could not immediately answer questions on the department’s reporting process.
City police do not have computers in patrol cars and can’t use the Maryland State Police software program that allows officers elsewhere to scan the barcodes on the back of Maryland driver’s licenses and automatically input demographic data from traffic stops into a traffic information exchange platform.
In correspondence with the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, the department cited the lack of computers and the failure by its officers to complete handwritten traffic stop forms as reasons its data was not available. The department said obtaining the technology to allow for proper reporting was a top priority.
Some data for the city is available. The Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice found higher rates of stops and searches among black motorists in Baltimore in its investigation of the city department. The Justice Department created its own database of city traffic stop data from years of paper reports.
One Justice Department finding: Between 2010 and 2015, black motorists made up 82 percent of people stopped by police for traffic violations. Black residents make up 60 percent of the city’s driving-age population. Black drivers in the city were 23 percent more likely to be searched than white motorists, the Justice Department found, but less likely to have contraband than other motorists.
The Justice Department ultimately concluded that “there are strong indications that BPD’s high rate of stopping AfricanAmerican drivers is discriminatory.”
The Justice Department declined to comment Wednesday on the data from the state’s other jurisdictions.
The new data captures 2,819,384 traffic stops logged in Maryland between January 2013 and Oct. 2. The Maryland State Police were responsible for the largest portion of the stops, with more than 809,000.
Black drivers represented 32 percent of the state police stops, and 49 percent of state police searches of motorists. Maryland’s population is 30.5 percent black, according to 2015 census figures.
Forty-two percent of black motorists searched by state police were found to have contraband, compared to 53 percent of white motorists who were searched.
Black drivers were more likely to be searched by state police regardless of the initial cause for the stop, according to the data. For instance, black motorists were 111 percent more likely than white motorists to be searched after being pulled over for a seat belt violation. After stop light or stop sign violations, black motorists were 117 percent more likely to be searched than white motorists.
Greg Shipley, a spokesman for the Maryland State Police, questioned the analysis by the Southern Coalition for Social Justice.
He said the data published by the coalition represented “a subset” of available data that did not capture all of the agency’s traffic stops or distinguish between the various kinds of “searches” that troopers make, including plain view searches and searches subsequent to an arrest on a warrant.
Shipley said state troopers patrol highways and often don’t know the race of the person they are pulling over.
His agency “has not, does not, nor will it ever condone the use of a person’s race as a basis for any type of police action,” he said, and is “committed to upholding rights of every citizen afforded by the U.S. Constitution and the laws of Maryland.”
Shipley said the agency “has a strong, clear policy prohibiting biased policing,” trains its troopers against biased policing throughout their careers, and provides every person pulled over with a pamphlet that “provides clear information on how to file a complaint or express concerns about an encounter with one of our troopers.”
The Southern Coalition for Social Justice focused on Maryland because it has one of the strongest requirements for the collection of such data in the country, Mance said.
The group’s new website allows drivers to look up their own traffic stops by time, date and location, and to review the traffic stop history of the officer who pulled them over by the officer’s unique identification number.
Mance said the data could be used by defense attorneys representing clients who believe they were stopped without justification.
“When circumstances arise where the official narrative for why a person was stopped doesn’t really square with the evidence, people will draw on the website to get a sense of what the officer’s been doing overall,” he said.
The database will also enable police chiefs to review traffic stop data and flag troubling trends, either throughout a department or with a single officer, Mance said.
“If an officer is assigned to a beat that’s 20 percent African-American, but the stop data shows that it’s 80 percent AfricanAmericans being stopped, that will be apparent immediately,” he said, “and provide them with an opportunity to intervene and have a conversation with the officer.”
“Race is the single biggest predictor of someone being treated more punitively.”