Local chiefs say racial disparity not evident in traffic stop figures

Local chiefs say racial disparity not evident in traffic stop figures


Minorities are more likely to be pulled over than whites for a traffic stop, but less likely to receive a citation, according to a report looking into the racial disparities in traffic stops in Rhode Island. If you are a white male under 31 and are not a resident of the community in which you are driving, you are the most likely to get stopped.

Ninety-six percent of the stops were made for traffic law violations, most often speeding. Of those stops, 77 percent were of white drivers, 11 percent Hispanic, about 10 percent black, and 2 percent of Asians or Pacific Islanders.

The recently completed study reviewed 153,891 traffic stops made by law enforcement officers in Rhode Island’s 39 cities and towns between Jan. 1 and Sept. 30, 2013. It was conducted by Northeastern University’s Institute on Race and Justice. The authors said that the results were similar to those found in a 2010 survey.

The report draws no conclusions about the existence of racial profiling; rather it identifies potential areas for further examination. The Charlestown, Richmond, Hopkinton and Westerly departments were included in the study.

The Rhode Island Department of Transportation and its Traffic Stop Data Advisory Committee released the findings Jan. 15. Stops were evaluated across four measures: stops compared to driving population estimates; stops compared to census data; proportion of drivers who received a citation or warning; and proportion of drivers searched.

The study indicated that progress has been made to reduce racial and ethnic disparities in post-stop searches. “But search patterns still reveal that in the majority of Rhode Island communities, minority drivers were more likely to be searched than white drivers,” according to the report.

No community was found to have a consistently high incidence of racial or ethnic disparities, or racial profiling, across all four areas reviewed, the authors said.

The study noted that searches are a relatively rare occurrence during routine traffic stops, and as a result, only a small number of records were available for analysis. In Charlestown’s case, the instances were so rare that it was not considered for that part of the study.

Richmond Police Chief Elwood M. Johnson Jr. said, “I can tell from firsthand experience that motor vehicle stops are usually prompted by an observed motor vehicle violation.” Johnson served along with community members and fellow law enforcement officers on the advisory committee that evaluated the statistics.

Johnson said that in many instances the officer can’t tell how many occupants are in the vehicle at the time of the stop, “never mind the perceived ethnicity of the operator.”

He did said the initial data was useful for departments to review in evaluating their overall performance. For the few departments in which disparities increased, they could be attributed to a number of reasons, Johnson said, including “residential” and “driving population changes.” He suggested that interpretations should be made with caution.

Johnson also said he had concerns about the lack of “absolute accuracy or reliability of the so-called benchmarks” used to measure racial disparities, whereas the data collected by the police departments, “despite potential human error, are based on real stops and finite numbers.”

Johnson said that based on his experience in Richmond and daily observations of traffic patterns, “I don’t think the driving population estimate is consistent with our actual driving population.” He said while he can “appreciate” the logic of using various estimates, they don’t take into account Interstate 95 going through the middle of the community. He said thousands of drivers from outside the state enter Richmond for fast-food restaurants, gas, coffee, restrooms and to travel to the University of Rhode Island and other attractions like Newport and the South County beaches.

The chief said that despite his concerns about the overall reliability of the measures, he had reviewed his own department’s figures and did not see an alarming rate of disparity when compared to census data or driving population estimates. He said that 90 percent of the stops were of nonresidents traveling through the town. Johnson said he found that this fact was not accurately represented in the statistical information.

In Westerly, Police Chief Edward W. St. Clair said that he was still going over the more than 100-page report, in which he had found some discrepancies, with Westerly’s numbers being substituted for another town’s.

“While concerned with the methodology, as far as Westerly is concerned, I do not see a concerning disparity in the traffic stop data,” St. Clair said.

St. Clair suggested that some of the multiple benchmarks used to determine if a disparity exists in a particular community are questionable. He said an estimate of the “racial and ethnic characteristics of the driving population of that community” based on an “assumption that cities and towns close to a particular city contribute more people of the driving population of a target city,” appears flawed. This assumption, he said, is based on a perceived economic “draw” and factors that push drivers out of surrounding communities and into the target city or town. “Certainly not an exact methodology,” he said.

St. Clair said the study provides an opportunity to review traffic-stop data statewide and allows him to compare data with surrounding communities. He said it also initiates discussion related to traffic stops and racial profiling disparities, strengthening the relationship between law enforcement and the community.

Charlestown Police Chief Jeffrey Allen said the results confirmed for him something he was already aware of — that there does not appear to be a racial disparity in traffic stops. He said that if someone was able to dispute that conclusion, he hopes they would contact him. As far as enforcement, he said, having a patrol car on the main roads, Route 1 or 112, slows speeders down.

Allen noted that special targeted events like seat-belt promotions or drunken-driving details would increase the number of traffic stops, as would occasions in which the department has been provided with funding to have more officers out on the road to specifically deal with traffic situations.

Allen said the results demonstrate that officers are performing their traffic duties fairly and professionally. The data revealed that 91.6 percent of those stopped in Charlestown were white, while the remaining 8.4 percent were described as non-white.

In terms of searches, Allen said that in the nine month period of the study, Charlestown police searched 27 white operators and 6 non-white drivers following traffic stops.

The circumstances of why operators were searched are not part of the statistics, but Allen suggested that drivers were searched as the result of an arrest related to outstanding warrants or other violations.

Allen said he was confident that patrols in his community were being done “without biases or prejudices.” The report, he added, shows that there were fewer stops than those recorded in the previous survey.

Recommendations from the report include:

• Each police department should review data and areas of concern and, where appropriate, compare results to that of comparable communities.

• Police department leadership should share data with their officers to increase understanding about what the data is indicating about local enforcement activity — as well as share it with the community.

• The systematic data collection of traffic stops should continue across departments to monitor trends and disparities over time.

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