Traffic Stops in Black and White.

Author:Sullum, Jacob
 
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AFTER THE OREGON Supreme Court imposed new limits on police authority to grill drivers during routine traffic stops last year, Bobbin Singh of the Oregon Justice Resource Center called the decision "incredibly important for communities of color." While white drivers may assume that getting a ticket is the worst thing that can happen when they're pulled over for a traffic violation, Singh told Oregon Public Radio, "there's not really any expectation of where the limits are" when people with darker complexions find themselves in the same situation.

Research confirms the impression that racial minorities tend to be treated differently during traffic stops. A 2018 analysis of stops in Portland, Oregon, found that black drivers were subjected to discretionary searches 9 percent of the time, compared to a rate of 3 percent for white drivers.

Information collected by the Pennsylvania State Police reveals similar disparities. "Year after year," The Philadelphia Inquirer reported in January, "troopers were roughly two to three times more likely to search black or Hispanic drivers than white drivers." And when searches were conducted, "troopers were far less likely to find contraband" if the drivers were black or Hispanic rather than white, suggesting that the evidentiary threshold for searching blacks and Hispanics was lower.

Such differential treatment seems to be a nationwide phenomenon. In a 2017 analysis of data from 20 states, researchers at Stanford University found that "white drivers are searched in 2.0% of stops, compared to 3.5% of stops for black motorists and 3.8% for Hispanic motorists." After the researchers controlled for stop location, date and time, and driver age and gender, they calculated that "black and Hispanic drivers have approximately twice the odds of being searched relative to white drivers." They were also twice as likely to be arrested. The study found that "black and Hispanic drivers are searched on the basis of less evidence than white drivers, suggestive of bias in search decisions."

In a 2016 National Bureau of Economics paper, Harvard economist Roland Fryer analyzed information about police encounters from New York City's "stop and frisk" program, from a nationally representative survey of the general public, and from reports on incidents in which officers fired their weapons, based on...

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