The Impact of Race on the Police Decision to Search During a Traffic Stop

Published date01 May 2012
Date01 May 2012
Subject MatterArticles
/tmp/tmp-17ixaOBCKmn2Cf/input 425725CCJ28210.1177/1043986211425725Higgins
et al.Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice
Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice
28(2) 166 –183
The Impact of Race
© 2012 SAGE Publications
Reprints and permission: http://www.
on the Police Decision
DOI: 10.1177/1043986211425725
to Search During a Traffic
Stop: A Focal Concerns
Theory Perspective

George E. Higgins1, Gennaro F. Vito1,
and Elizabeth L. Grossi1
Racial profiling is an important issue in contemporary policing. Research in this area,
especially in the decision to search, has relied on an outcomes test and correlates
that are largely devoid of theory. Thus, the research is unable to provide a clear
understanding of police decision making during a traffic stop. The purpose of the
present study was to examine this process. Using data from more than 36,000 traffic
stops from Louisville, KY, the present study applies the focal concerns theory to this
decision-making process. The research results indicate that blameworthiness is the
primary reason that searches are performed for the entire sample of traffic stops as
well as those for the Black and White subsamples.
policing, search, focal concerns theory, racial profiling
Race remains a pertinent concern throughout the criminal justice system. It has cer-
tainly been a consistent problem at every stage of the system, including police decision
making (Gabbidon & Greene, 2005, 2009; Higgins, 2010; Walker, Spohn, & DeLone,
2000). This issue has prompted some states and the federal government to collect data
to detect specific targeting of racial minorities even if is part of a larger profile, which
is now known as racial profiling (Withrow, 2006).
1University of Louisville, Louisville, KY, USA
Corresponding Author:
George E. Higgins, University of Louisville, 208 Brigman Hall, Louisville, KY 40292-0001, USA

Higgins et al.
To date, some researchers have taken up the charge to understand racial profiling
(Engel, 2008; Engel & Tillyer, 2008; Novak, 2004; Ramirez, McDevitt, & Ferrell, 2000;
Tomaskovic-Devey, Mason, Zingraff, 2004). Some researchers have emphasized racial
profiling in the context of searches (Farrell, Rumminger, & Mc Devitt, 2005; Harcourt,
2004; Hernandez-Murillo et al., 2004; Higgins et al., 2008; Knowles, Persico, & Todd,
2001; Persico & Todd, 2004, 2008), but these researchers have either relied on the out-
comes test or just correlates of searches. Some studies in the racial profiling literature
have used theory for a deeper understanding (Engel, Calnon, & Bernard, 2002).
Theory is important for several reasons. First, theory provides researchers with a
rational method of organizing their data (Higgins, 2005). That is, theory outlines con-
cepts and components of these concepts that researchers may use to organize their
individual measures. Second, theory provides a rationale as to why a concept behaves
in the manner that it does. Thus, a theory would provide more understanding of the
decisions that police officers make that result in disparities (Engel et al., 2002). A
theory allows researchers to organize their data in a rational way that can lead to new
empirical understandings of a particular behavior (Higgins, 2005). Devoid of theory,
research results are only descriptive and are not based on a set of concepts that have
important relational links (Bernard & Ritti, 1990; Kraska, 2004). Engel et al. (2002)
argued that this is an important issue in racial profiling research. Some researchers
have answered this call and attempted to develop theory and use it in understanding
parts of racial profiling (Novak & Chamlin, 2008; Parker, MacDonald, Petrocelli,
Piquero, & Smith, 2004; Smith & Alpert, 2007; Tomaskovic-Devey et al., 2004;
Warren, Tomaskovic-Devey, Smith, Zingraff & Mason, 2006). Building on these
developments, Tillyer and Hartley (2010) cogently argue that Steffensmeier’s (1980)
version of focal concerns may be used to understand racial profiling issues. Focal
concerns theory was originally developed for understanding sentencing disparities.
Steffensmeier’s (1980) theory suggests that judges use three concepts (i.e., blamewor-
thiness, protection of the community, and practical constraints) to arrive at a myriad
decisions that include sentencing.
The purpose of the present study is to contribute to the literature on racial profiling
in a few ways. First, this study provides more evidence of racial disparities in police
officers decision to search individuals. Second, this study helps to clarify our under-
standing of the traffic stop search literature by using the focal concerns theory. Thus,
this study specifies the need for this theory and theoretically applies it to police deci-
sion making.
Studies of Traffic Stop Searches and Racial Profiling
The literature on traffic stop searches includes studies that use the outcomes test (on
the productivity of police searches) and those that explore its correlates. We begin
with the studies that use the outcomes test. For instance, Knowles et al. (2001) exam-
ined data on police searches of vehicles stopped on Interstate 95 in Maryland between
January 1995 and January 1999 (N = 1,590). They determined that 29% of the

Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice 28(2)
searches were conducted on White drivers, whereas 63% of the drivers stopped and
searched were African Americans although their assumed proportion of the driving
public was only 18% (Knowles et al., 2001, p. 218). The outcome rate (the percentage
of searches that uncovered drug contraband) for these drivers was nearly equal—a
finding that does not imply racial prejudice (African Americans 34%, Whites 32%;
Knowles et al., 2001, p. 219). In contrast, the low outcome rate for Hispanics (11%)
was “suggestive of prejudice against this group” (Knowles et al., 2001, p. 222). This
demonstrates that Hispanics were not carrying drug contraband at a high-enough rate
to justify their search and the outcome rate was one third less than for Blacks and
Whites (see Persico & Todd, 2008).
Similarly, an analysis of statewide traffic stop data from Missouri from 2001
(1,389,947 traffic stops resulting in 99,860 searches and 76,567 arrests) analyzed the
outcome rate of searches of drivers by race (Hernandez-Murillo & Knowles, 2004, p.
968). They determined that both African Americans and Hispanics were stopped and
searched disparately in terms of their proportion in the population of drivers. In terms
of the outcome rate, drugs were more likely to be found in searches of White (19.7%)
than either African American (12.3%) or Hispanic (9.8%) drivers (Hernandez-Murillo
& Knowles, 2004, p. 973). Therefore, searches of minorities in Missouri appeared to
be the product of racial bias.
The outcomes test was applied to analyze the outcomes of traffic stops in Wichita
that took place during the first 9 months of 2001 that included a vehicle search (N =
2,288). They determined that the proportion of Black drivers stopped (21.45%) and
searched (32.65%) exceeded their proportion in the population of drivers searched
(11.4%). The proportion of Whites searched was slightly lower than their percentage
in the population (63.61% vs. 65.2%). Hispanics were stopped at roughly the same
rate as their proportion in the population but were searched at a somewhat higher rate
(Persico & Todd, 2004, p. 14). However, the outcome rate for drug contraband discov-
ered during searches was “very similar across groups of motorists (Persico & Todd,
2004, p. 17).” Persico and Todd determined that these rates also did not differ by
gender or age and concluded that “individual officers in Wichita chose their search
strategies to maximize efficiency in finding contraband and not out of racial bias”
(Persico & Todd, 2004, p. 20).
Despite the relative consistency of findings of racial bias in the outcome of searches
following traffic stops, the outcome rate test is not without its critics. Farrell et al.
(2005, p. 88) note that the differences and similarities between such search results var-
ies depending on what is categorized as a “hit” (type of drugs, amount, and so on) and
which searches are used as a denominator. Harcourt (2004, p. 1314) concludes that
this type of economic analysis is “inadequate” because it fails to consider the effect of
the search on crime rates (rather than the productivity of the search) and they do not
use multivariate analysis to consider the impact of variables other than race on search
results (see also McMahon, Garner, Davis, & Kraus, 2002; Engel & Tillyer, 2008 for
additional criticisms).

Higgins et al.
Other researchers have explored the correlates of traffic stop searches. Using data
from Wichita, Withrow (2004a, 2004b) found moderate to high correlations between
the race of individuals stopped and the predominant racial representation of the beat.
He also noted that Black drivers tend to be overrepresented in predominantly White
neighborhoods and that White drivers are overrepresented in predominantly Black
neighborhoods. Decker and Rojek (2002) showed that Blacks were more likely to be
searched incident to an arrest. Cox, Pease, Miller, and Tyson (2001) showed that male
drivers of all races were more likely to be searched than female drivers. Schafer,
Carter, Kats-Bannister, and Wells (2006) found that race and sex were factors in an
officers’ decision to...

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