WMBF INVESTIGATES: Statistics show stereotyping, targeting in traffic stops

WMBF INVESTIGATES: Statistics show stereotyping, targeting in traffic stops

MYRTLE BEACH, SC (WMBF) -Myrtle Beach Police Cpl. Tom Vest holds a speed gun up to oncoming traffic on the U.S. 17 Bypass. He’s on the lookout for high speeds, broken tailgates and failure to yield.

“The time I spent in traffic we saw a lot of crashes and this stretch through here - I mean the Bypass in general - there was a lot of really serious collisions,” Vest said as cars whizzed past him.

After working as a traffic cop for six years, the horrors of traffic collisions are all too familiar to him.

“Seeing the crash just reinforces why we do what we do for traffic enforcement,” Vest said. “In the end we want to save lives. That’s what we are out here to do as police officers and as traffic officers; we are here to save lives. Traffic enforcement helps us do that.”

Every day across the country, officers perform tens of thousands of traffic stops. The interaction is one of the most common between officers and the public. It is also one of the most dangerous tasks for a law enforcement.

“We don’t know who we are dealing with. We don’t know who we’ve stopped, and they don’t know who we are, so it’s a completely unknown situation and a lot of times like this, we’ll be the only officer here,” Vest said.

Traffic stops also place drivers in vulnerable situations, as law enforcement holds the power to decide whether to write a ticket, search the car or make an arrest.

“The traffic laws allow the police to pull over pretty much anyone they want,” said Frank Baumgartner, a political science professor at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill. “The officer has the discretion about whether or not to apply that law to you, so they can pick and choose and I think it’s important we understand that.”

Cpl. Sonny Collins with the South Carolina Highway Patrol said traffic stops are about safety.

“The idea of traffic enforcement is to be fair, to be impartial and to use traffic enforcement to get driver behavior to a safer level to hopefully reduce crashes, which then in return will reduce fatalities,” Collins said.

This goal is likely echoed at departments across the nation. And while the objective is to be “fair” and “impartial,” research looking at driver demographics is showing this isn’t always the outcome.

“We know for sure that the result of the current practices of policing the highways are very disparate with regards to race, gender and age,” said Baumgartner, who has researched the topic for the last seven years.

A look at the data

Myrtle Beach police officers issued 18,201 traffic tickets and 16,144 warning between August 2017 and January 2019.

A closer look at how the tickets were issued revealed white drivers received 70 percent of the tickets and black drivers received 28 percent.

While white drivers received the majority of the tickets, a different picture is painted when the figures are compared to the U.S. Census’ estimates of Myrtle Beach city demographics.

Only 14.4 percent of the population is black, but that group receive 28 percent of the tickets. The demographics of tickets issued to white drivers also received a little more than the local population at 67 percent.

When it comes to traffic warnings, black drivers receive a greater number when compared to their total Myrtle Beach population. Hispanic drivers receive far less.

However, this information is not enough to conclude any bias in officers. Areas like Myrtle Beach and Horry County are tourist destinations, so the demographics of drivers on the road often do not match the demographics of the city’s full-time residents.

“For six, seven months a year, we’re a tourist attraction where all demographics come to Horry County to enjoy our beaches,” Collins said.

Further insight can be found by analyzing what happens after a stop occurs.

Researchers and journalists at Stanford University started the Open Policing Project to explore traffic stop data throughout the country.

The project analyzed more than 60 million stops across 20 states to find racial disparities in policing.

The data revealed black drivers are stopped at higher rates than white drivers. After the stop, the researchers found officers ticket, search and arrest black and Hispanic drivers at higher rates than white drivers.

Specifically, black drivers are 20 percent more likely to get a ticket, and Hispanic drivers are 30 percent more likely.

“These patterns illustrate the disparate impact of policing on minority communities. However, as with stop rates, these disparities may not be due to bias,” the researchers stated online.

Researchers also tested how often officers found contraband after initiating searches. This analysis found Hispanic drivers are less likely to be found with contraband after having their car searched.

“In our data, the success rate of searches (or the hit rate) is generally lower for Hispanic drivers compared to whites; so, the outcome test indicates Hispanics face discrimination,” the site stated.

WMBF analyzed the project’s data for South Carolina from 2005 to 2016. The data included information on 8.4 million traffic stops conducted by state police officers.

In South Carolina, males were stopped and also searched twice as often as female drivers. The data reveals, however, male drivers were just as likely as females to be found with illegal items despite the higher search rate.

More than 60 percent of the stops involved white drivers. Hispanic drivers were three times as likely to be searched than white or black drivers. However, Hispanic drivers were less likely to be found with contraband. Black and white drivers were equally as likely to be searched and found with contraband.

For a detailed look at this analyzed data click here.

It’s not just the Stanford Policing Project finding these disparities.

In South Carolina, police departments across the state submit information on the age, gender and race of traffic stops each month to the South Carolina Department of Public Safety. But this information is only collected for drivers who aren’t ticketed or arrested in South Carolina.

North Carolina law requires most police agencies to collect information on every traffic stop, including the demographics of the driver, reason for the stop, and if a search was conducted. However, for 20 years that information was collected but never reviewed.

Baumgartner and a team of researchers analyzed the data on more than 20 million traffic stops throughout North Carolina. In 2018, he published these finding in his book, Suspect Citizens,

“We essentially confirmed every fear among those who are alleging driving while black. Black drivers were much more prone to get pulled over and then when they were pulled over, they were twice as likely to be searched and they were not more likely to be found with contraband,” he said.

Specifically, Baumgartner’s work found black drivers were 95 percent more likely to be stopped and 115 percent more likely to be searched in North Carolina.

“We do find the same thing everywhere we look. We’ve looked at every city in Illinois, we’ve looked at hundreds of cities across the country. We find very similar and troubling patterns and the main thing I would say is it’s just not worth it,” he said.

For Baumgartner, there is no doubt of disparities of traffic stops, but there is uncertainty about what is causing it and how to fix it.

“It’s a stereotyping and a targeting that has maybe gone a little too far not just a little bit, it’s gone too far - and it’s not helpful because we are under-policing certain groups and we over-police other groups and that’s not efficient,” Baumgartner said.

As one of the most common interactions between an officer and the public, this disparity in stops is also shaping this relationship.

“We are alienating huge swathes of populations, especially from our minority communities (who) have been alienated from the police because they understand they are being unfairly targeted. The numbers really show they are justified in that feeling of alienation,” Baumgartner said.

The numbers show the alienation is not worth it. Nationwide, minorities have higher search rates but are less likely to be found with anything illegal, according to data from the Stanford Policing Project.

Baumgartner’s research also found around 88 percent of searches across all demographics in North Carolina fail to lead to an arrest.

“We’re not getting a big public safety benefit from that. We’re not interdicting large quantities of drugs on the highways,” Baumgartner said. “It’s a needle in a haystack kind of strategy that is alienating millions of people, causing them not to corporate with the police and it is not making us safer.”

Baumgartner said now is the time for the data to pave a way for conversation with law enforcement on how to address these statistics.

Baumgartner admits it is not always a welcomed or comfortable conversation. Since his data came out, he described officers’ response to it like the ‘stages of grief’ – shock, anger and denial.

“I really hope that these numbers can lead to a new conversation of what is effective policing that enhances the trust, especially in those communities that suffer the highest rates of crime, which is our minority communities,” Baumgartner said. “People need to be able to trust the police in order to work with them.”

But now, he is beginning to have constructive conversations and is hopeful that by discussing the topic with data, it can lead to more effective reforms nationwide.

Baumgartner points to departments who have lower racial disparities are those that conduct stops for primarily safety reason rather than for broken taillights or expired tags.

“In a perfect world, you would want everything to mirror the population. You would want everything to be right in line with what the population is versus percentages, but fair and impartial is our goal,” Collins said of the South Carolina Highway Patrol.

Traffic stops conducted across South Carolina from January 2016 - December 2018. The data reveals the distribution of stops between age, gender and race of drivers.
Traffic stops conducted across South Carolina from January 2016 - December 2018. The data reveals the distribution of stops between age, gender and race of drivers.

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