Most Ocala residents have little contact with police officers. For most, the only contact they have with law enforcement is if and when they are pulled over for a traffic stop. While many stops are relatively benign, involving only a traffic ticket or warning, others end in arrests on a wide variety of charges, including drunk driving, drug possession (and distribution), weapons charges and auto theft.
A new study published in the Nature Human Behavior journal indicates that officers’ decisions on who to pull over and search are affected by “persistent racial bias.”
FHP included in study
Researchers used a national database of 95 million traffic stops conducted by 21 state law enforcement agencies (including the Florida Highway Patrol) and 35 city police departments between 2011 and 2018.
The study’s authors found that after drivers are stopped, officers base decisions to search Black and Hispanic drivers on less evidence than used to search white drivers. This trend holds true for both state law enforcement agencies and city police departments.
The authors state that their research suggests that “decisions about whom to stop and, subsequently, whom to search are biased against Black and Hispanic drivers.”
The impact of marijuana legalization
The authors also looked at how the drug policies of different states affect racial disparities in traffic stops. In states where recreational marijuana has been legalized or decriminalized, there were fewer overall searches of drivers regardless of race or ethnicity, but that racial bias persisted for those searches that were carried out. In other words, even in those states, white drivers were less likely to be searched than Hispanic or Black drivers.
Another of their findings is that the percentage of Black drivers who were stopped declined after sunset (the authors assumed it is harder for police officers to identify drivers by race after sunset). But the authors made an interesting observation about daylight versus dark traffic stops: “If Black drivers comprise a smaller share of stopped drivers when it is dark and accordingly difficult to determine a driver’s race, that suggests Black drivers were stopped during daylight hours in part because of their race.”
Making driving safer?
Of course, law enforcement officials argue that traffic stops are primarily conducted to improve make our streets and highways safer, so that officers can warn or cite drivers about broken taillights, defective headlights and such.
If so, the heavy emphasis on pulling over Black (12.3 percent of the U.S. population) and Hispanic (12.5 percent) drivers has a relatively minor effect on public safety.
The study is more evidence that the criminal justice system, and American culture, continue to have room for improvement.