Driv­ing while black

Our view: Data show­ing mi­nori­ties are more likely to be stopped and searched on Mary­land’s roads sug­gest cur­rent ef­forts aren’t enough

Baltimore Sun - - MARYLAND VOICES -

The news that black mo­torists in Mary­land are more likely to be pulled over than their white coun­ter­parts, and are more likely to be sub­ject to a search yet are less likely to be caught with con­tra­band, is dis­turb­ing but not sur­pris­ing. It was Mary­land, af­ter all, where Robert Wilkins, a Har­vard-ed­u­cated at­tor­ney whois African-Amer­i­can, was pulled over in1992 with his fam­ily in Western Mary­land for a mi­nor speed­ing vi­o­la­tion and was then sub­jected to a 45-minute road­side search in­clud­ing drug-sniff­ing dogs. Mr. Wilkins, who is now a fed­eral judge, sued the state po­lice and won a land­mark set­tle­ment that helped bring the con­cept of “driv­ing while black” to the na­tional con­scious­ness.

In fact, it is as a con­se­quence of that case that we have the data show­ing that even now, 25 years later, blacks are the sub­ject of traf­fic en­force­ment out of pro­por­tion with their share of the pop­u­la­tion in ju­ris­dic­tion af­ter ju­ris­dic­tion. As The Sun’s Kevin Rec­tor re­ported, blacks make up 27 per­cent of Bal­ti­more County’s pop­u­la­tion but were the tar­gets of 50 per­cent of stops and 53 per­cent of searches. In Anne Arun­del, which is 16 per­cent black, African-Amer­i­cans were sub­ject to 29 per­cent of stops and 35 per­cent of searches. In Howard County, 18 per­cent black, it’s 37 per­cent of stops and 43 per­cent of searches.

The re­sponse from the po­lice agen­cies in ques­tion was fairly con­sis­tent: They say they are com­mit­ted to fair, un­bi­ased polic­ing and train their of­fi­cers to act ac­cord­ingly. They also note that the data can only tell part of the story, since of­fi­cers are mak­ing de­ci­sions in the field based on a range of fac­tors that aren’t nec­es­sar­ily ap­par­ent, like a driver’s pre­vi­ous record or his or her driv­ing be­hav­ior im­me­di­ately be­fore the stop.

Yet the ag­gre­gate pic­ture from some 2.8 mil­lion traf­fic stops recorded be­tween 2013 and 2016 is con­sis­tently trou­bling and should cause po­lice agen­cies to ask some hard ques­tions about what im­plicit bi­ases their of­fi­cers may hold. Yale re­searchers made head­lines this fall with a study doc­u­ment­ing im­plicit bias among preschool teach­ers when it comes to dis­ci­pline. They found that the teach­ers — re­gard­less of their own race — were more likely to look for mis­be­hav­ior among blacks, and es­pe­cially black boys, than among other chil­dren. There is no rea­son to ex­pect that po­lice of­fi­cers, whose job, af­ter all, is to look for mis­be­hav­ior, would not share the same im­plicit bi­ases.

The data of­fer some rea­son to sup­port that no­tion. In many de­part­ments, there is a sub­stan­tial dif­fer­en­tial in terms of how of­ten cer­tain kinds of traf­fic stops lead to searches based on race. For ex­am­ple, in Bal­ti­more County, whites stopped for driv­ing while im­paired or for speed­ing vi­o­la­tions are ac­tu­ally more likely than blacks to be searched. But blacks stopped for vi­o­la­tions that are less clear threats to the safety of others — such as ve­hi­cle mal­func­tions, regis­tra­tion prob­lems or fail­ing to wear a seat belt — were much more likely to be searched. Sim­i­lar trends hold among other agen­cies: Blacks are much more likely to be stopped and searched on what we might con­sider dis­cre­tionary pre­texts than whites are.

The good news here is that the data have now been com­piled in such a way that they can help solve the prob­lem. Rather than the ag­gre­gated, statewide re­ports the gov­ern­ment has put out over the years, a North Carolina-based ad­vo­cacy group, the South­ern Coali­tion for So­cial Jus­tice, used Pub­lic In­for­ma­tion Act re­quests to get the raw data and ag­gre­gated it into an easy-to-use web­site that not only pro­vides de­part­ment-level num­bers but also en­ables track­ing by in­di­vid­ual mo­torists or of­fi­cers. It’s not per­fect, in that the state does not col­lect data on cer­tain kinds of traf­fic stops, in­clud­ing those based on the use of radar (as if that elim­i­nates any pos­si­bil­ity of of­fi­cer dis­cre­tion), and it doesn’t in­clude Bal­ti­more City, which does not re­port its num­bers, in part be­cause its of­fi­cers lack ac­cess to the tech­nol­ogy to make it prac­ti­cal to do so. Both short­com­ings need to be fixed. Even so, the data­base pro­vides an op­por­tu­nity for po­lice agen­cies to go be­yond generic train­ing pro­grams and to drill down into what par­tic­u­lar of­fi­cers are do­ing and why.

De­part­ments need to be an­a­lyz­ing the data to spot dis­crep­an­cies be­tween the demographics of the com­mu­ni­ties in­di­vid­ual of­fi­cers are as­signed to pa­trol and the race of the mo­torists they stop and search. In some cases, there may be good ex­pla­na­tions for dis­pro­por­tion­ate stops and searches of mi­nori­ties, but in other cases, com­man­der­s­mayspotof­fi­cers whoarelet­ting ei­ther overt or im­plicit bias get in the way of fair, con­sti­tu­tional polic­ing. Such an ap­proach could serve as an early warn­ing sys­tem for of­fi­cers whose prac­tices might be prob­lem­atic and could en­able de­part­ments to of­fer them in­di­vid­u­al­ized help in elim­i­nat­ing bi­ases.

Manda­tory sen­si­tiv­ity train­ing for all of­fi­cers is cer­tainly nec­es­sary, but it’s clearly not suf­fi­cient. If po­lice agen­cies are se­ri­ous about elim­i­nat­ing racial bias from law en­force­ment, they need to make clear to their of­fi­cers that their con­duct will be mea­sured and an­a­lyzed and that they will be held ac­count­able for it.

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