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Notebook Law

The trouble with traffic stops



The trouble with traffic stops

Multiple studies point to racial disparities in policing across the U.S.

Prosecutor Tom Kidd was working for the city of Dayton, Ohio, when he observed a troubling pattern in the cases that crossed his desk. “I noticed there were a lot of turn signal violations,” Kidd says. Police officers were issuing the minor traffic infractions in only one region of the city, a predominantly black area. No white, middle-class drivers were being pulled over for turn signal violations.

According to Kidd, the traffic stops had a purpose: “You had law enforcement looking for opportunities to pull over vehicles in the hopes of being able to smell marijuana, for example. If you smelled marijuana, you then have a right to search the entire vehicle in the hopes of finding drugs, firearms, whatever.”

The days of Officer Friendly rescuing a cat stuck in a tree seem long gone. So-called active policing demonstrates how the role of law enforcement has changed. The shift partially stemmed from the war on drugs that began in the 1970s, but Kidd says today’s aggressive police engagement often isn’t beneficial to society. 

A 2019 investigation of three Ohio cities—Cleveland, Columbus, and Cincinnati—showed racial disparity in police stops in all three places. In Cincinnati, for example, police made 120 percent more stops per resident in black communities than in white ones. Also, once stopped, black individuals made up 75 percent of the city’s traffic stop arrests. That doesn’t mean every stop or arrest was unwarranted or that racial profiling was necessarily involved: On the contrary, investigators said they ruled out bias at the personal level as a factor. 

But according to Eye on Ohio executive director Lucia Walinchus, it’s doubtful the differences in traffic stop rates were due solely to higher traffic infraction rates in black neighborhoods. Instead, the differences are more likely due to police departments placing more patrols in those areas. “Concentrating officers in one area based on the number of arrests creates a vicious feedback loop,” Walinchus said. “Police hang out there more, pull more people over there, and thereby search more people there and then arrest more people there.”

The death of George Floyd in Minnesota and similar police-involved deaths in recent weeks thrust the issue of racial disparities in arrests into the spotlight, with mass protests on streets across the nation. After Floyd’s death, The New York Times looked at Minneapolis city data and reported that although blacks make up only about 20 percent of the city’s population, they make up about 60 percent of arrests where force is involved. Washington Post writer Radley Balko has compiled an extensive list of data examining racial disparity across the United States, not only in policing, but also in areas such as bail practices, death sentences, and inmates held in isolation. (Balko includes any contrarian studies he found, too.)

One example: According to a 2017 report by the National Registry of Exonerations, the rate of drug use is roughly the same among black people and white people, but blacks are almost five times as likely to go to prison for possession. Another example: A 2013 U.S. Department of Justice report showed that, among black drivers stopped by police, 19 percent were stopped for a vehicle defect, like a burned-out tail light, compared with 13 percent of white drivers. Yet another: Stanford University researchers analyzed 95 million traffic stops from 21 state patrol agencies and 35 municipal police departments. The study, published in Nature Human Behaviour, found that black people were less likely to be stopped after sunset when skin complexion is harder to see. 

On the other hand, a 2006 study of that “veil of darkness” hypothesis in Oakland, Calif., didn’t show racial profiling in traffic stops. A handful of other studies also challenge the notion of racial disparity in policing. Still, most suggest the practice is widespread.

Everyone breaks the law, probably every day. Civil liberties lawyer Harvey Silverglate suggests the average American commits three felonies a day. (His book Three Felonies a Day argued “vague laws are the lynchpin” that allows the government to go after whomever they want to target.) Whether or not it’s accurate that everybody is a repeat felon, America unquestionably has a lot of laws on the books. According to researchers at the Library of Congress, there are so many federal laws that no official count exists. That contributes to the overcriminalization of behavior, says Kidd, the lawyer who noticed the turn signal violations. 

Kidd is a criminal defense attorney today. He switched sides after being influenced by Prison Fellowship founder Chuck Colson and theologian Francis Schaeffer. Both were proponents of criminal justice reform that includes victim-criminal mediation, restitution, and second chances. Kidd says jails and prisons are overpopulated and aren’t always the best place for rehabilitation, especially for nonviolent offenders. The answer isn’t to demonize all police. But the police brutality that has come to light in recent weeks raises more awareness that changes are needed.


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  • Janet B
    Posted: Tue, 07/14/2020 09:53 am

    I am curious:  did any of those studies note whether the car that was stopped had darkened windows, and if so, how dark?