Do You Know Why You Pulled Me Over?

Author:Epp, Charles
Position::Suspect Citizens: What 20 Million Traffic Stops Tell Us About Policing and Race - Book review

Investigatory traffic stops are pointless and discriminatory. Why do police still conduct them?

Suspect Citizens: What 20 Million Traffic Stops Tell Us About Policing and Race

by Frank R. Baumgartner, Derek A. Epp, and Kelsey Shoub

Cambridge University Press, 302 pp.

One energetic police officer in North Carolina--we don't know his or her name or police department--has, since 2002, stopped and searched around 1,000 drivers, of whom more than 900 are black. Indeed, a majority of the state's police officers stop and search black drivers at considerably higher rates than whites. And it isn't just individual officers: in a majority of the state's police departments, the search rate for black drivers is higher, often much higher. There are 255 North Carolina cities where officers have conducted at least fifty typical traffic-safety stops of white and black drivers since 2002. In forty-three of those cities, the search disparity was more than two to one.

If this seems all too predictable, you should know this, too: many North Carolina officers and police departments do not stop and search black drivers at higher rates than whites. That, it turns out, is the most significant observation in Suspect Citizens, a fascinating new book by a crack team of political scientists led by Frank Baumgartner, a professor at the University of North Carolina: it is possible to run a successful police department without targeting black people for stops and searches. And not only is it possible, it is common in some places.

We know this because North Carolina, since 2002, has required police departments to report the race of the driver in all police stops. For years, few people paid any attention to the data as it quietly accumulated. The state now holds records on more than twenty-two million stops. Baumgartner and two colleagues, Derek Epp (no relation) and Kelsey Shoub, dug into this data. Their book is based on analysis of North Carolina traffic stops between 2002 and 2016.

The stop records confirm a basic, and now well-known, fact: although drivers of all races and ethnicities are stopped for significant traffic violations like serious speeding, blacks and Hispanics are especially likely to be stopped for minor violations, like a burned-out taillight. Officers use these little, technical violations as a pretext to ask questions, look around the car, and, sometimes, ask the driver for consent to do a search. The tactic is known as an "investigatory stop." In an...

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