The Decision to Search

Date01 May 2012
Published date01 May 2012
Subject MatterArticles
Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice
28(2) 146 –165
© 2012 SAGE Publications
Reprints and permission: http://www.
DOI: 10.1177/1043986211425734
and NovakJournal of Contemporary Criminal Justice
1Sam Houston State University, Huntsville, TX, USA
2University of Missouri-Kansas City, Kansas City, MO, USA
Corresponding Author:
Kenneth J. Novak, University of Missouri-Kansas City, Department of Criminal Justice & Criminology,
5215 Rockhill Road #205, Kansas City, MO 64110
The Decision to Search: Is
Race or Ethnicity Important?
Seth W. Fallik1 and Kenneth J. Novak2
This manuscript examines police officer decision making during automobile stops
to determine whether Black and Hispanic drivers are searched at parity with
nonminorities, with particular focus on officers’ legal authority to search and controlling
for other explanatory factors. Using data collected by a large Midwestern police
department, we observe Blacks are overrepresented among searches overall and
among searches involving greater officer discretion to search. However, neither race
nor ethnic effects were observed after introducing other explanatory variables into
multivariate models, suggesting factors other than minority status provide greater
understanding of officers’ decision making. Results indicate minorities are differentially
involved in searches because police engage minorities under characteristics consistent
with searches. This suggests that it is the social context of the stop, rather than the
race or ethnicity of the driver, that primarily influences searches.
police, racial profiling, searches
Awareness of racial and ethnic disparity and bias in automobile stops has increased
dramatically over the past two decades. Reactions to “racial profiling” has focused
public, political, legal, and sociological interest in examining the manner in which
police officers and minorities interact during automobile stops by evaluating whether
officer decision making is racially and ethnically neutral. Racial profiling involves the
police differentially using race and/or ethnicity rather than behavior as the primary
factor that directs officer decision making during self-initiated encounters (Ramirez,
McDevitt, & Farrell, 2000). Typically, this term has been applied to police–public
Fallik and Novak 147
encounters during automobile stops, including the assertion that police stop minorities
more often or subject minorities differentially to searches, citations, or arrest. The non-
neutral use of race and/or ethnicity comes at a substantial cost to public trust and
erodes law enforcement legitimacy.
A variety of analytic approaches have been employed to examine the racial profiling
phenomenon in a relatively short amount of time (see Fridell, 2004; Tillyer, Engel, &
Cherkauskas, 2010; Withrow, 2004). Strategies include examining public perception
on the extent of racial profiling (Gallup Organization, 1999; Higgins, Gabbidon, &
Vito, 2010; Reitzel & Piquero, 2006; Reitzel, Rice, & Piquero, 2004), citizens’
accounts of experiences during traffic stops (Allen & Monk-Turner, 2010; Engel &
Calnon, 2004; Harris, 1999a, 1999b; Lundman & Kaufman, 2003; Warren,
Tomaskovic-Devey, Smith, Zingraff, & Mason, 2006) and officers’ perceptions
(Barlow & Barlow, 2002). The primary focus among previous evaluations has been
to examine disparity in officer decision making through data collected by police
departments during routine traffic encounters with the public.
Racial profiling within automobile stops has focused on three distinct officer-initiated
decision-making points that can measure the presence of racial and/or ethnic nonneutral-
ity (Schafer, Carter, Katz-Bannister, & Wells, 2006; see also Barnum & Perfetti, 2010;
Ridgeway, 2006; Tillyer, Engel, & Cherkauskas, 2010). The first is the officer’s deci-
sion to initiate a stop. This decision-making point typically considers the propensity of
racial and ethnic minorities to be stopped or whether Blacks or Hispanics are stopped at
a higher rate than their community representation (Cordner, Williams, & Zuniga, 2000;
Lamberth, 1996; Lange, Blackman, & Johnson, 2001; Meehan & Ponder, 2002; Smith
& Alpert, 2002; Smith & Petrocelli, 2001; Roh & Robinson, 2009; Withrow, 2004). The
latter utilizes a “benchmarking” strategy that has proved to be problematic in part
because of the challenges associated with accurately estimating the racial and ethnic
characteristics of driving populations (Tillyer et al., 2009) and assumptions that officers
accurately identify the race and ethnicity of the driver prior to encounter initiation
(Alpert, Dunham, & Smith, 2007; Walker, 2001). The second officer-initiated decision-
making point considers an officer’s application of formal sanctions or the exercise of
coercion. Research from this decision-making point considers the propensity of racial
and ethnic minorities to be warned, cited, arrested, and have force used against them
(Engel, Calnon, & Bernard, 2002; Novak, 2004; Smith & Alpert, 2002; Tillyer & Engel,
2010; Withrow, 2006). The third decision-making point considers minority representa-
tion in searches (Gaines, 2006; Novak & Chamlin, 2008; Pickerill, Mosher, & Pratt,
2009; Parker, Lane, & Alpert, 2010; Vito & Walsh, 2008; Williams & Stahl, 2008; Withro w,
2002, 2004; Zingraff, Mason, Smith, Tomaskovic-Devey, Warren, & McMurray, 2000).
An extension of this line of inquiry involves analyzing the contraband hit rate or out-
come test during searches (Engel, 2008; Knowles, Persico, & Todd, 2001; Persico &
Todd, 2006).
Generally, racial profiling research indicates that minorities are more likely than
Whites to be searched during their encounters with police (Cox, Pease, Miller, &
Tyson, 2001; Knowles et al., 2001; Langan et al., 2001; Rojek, Rosenfeld, & Decker,

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