Dispatch July 2009

Driving While Black

A study of Illinois traffic-stop data shows that police are more likely to ask to search cars driven by African-Americans—but whites are more likely to have contraband.

When the President, the Professor and the Cop sit down to have a beer at the White House tonight, here’s an idea for drink coasters: copies of the 2008 Annual Report of Illinois Traffic Stops. It may not be the most riveting reading, but it demonstrates just how murky and open to interpretation matters of race and law enforcement can be, even when systematically analyzed by academics seeking to clear things up.

When he waded into the confrontation between Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates and Cambridge Police Sergeant James Crowley, President Obama cited his work on racial profiling as an Illinois state senator. But lost in the cable-fueled frenzy of subsequent debate has been any concrete discussion of the actual outcome of Obama’s efforts—a 2003 law mandating that the state Department of Transportation catalogue all traffic stops in an attempt to identify and assess racial bias. He was the bill’s chief sponsor, and did impressive work crafting consensus among civil libertarians, police, and groups across the political spectrum.

After five years of data collection—initially overseen by Northwestern University and now by the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Center for Research in Law and Justice – there are plenty of statistics for study. But how to interpret those statistics is less than clear. It’s sort of like trying to discern what exactly happened at the Gates home in Cambridge.

In 2008, 949 law enforcement agencies reported 2,518,825 traffic stops (63 agencies—mostly smaller—didn’t comply). Stops of minority drivers in each community were compared with the total estimated minority driving population for that community. Also compared by race were the reason for stops; the duration of stops; the outcome of stops; the number of “consent searches” (instances where the police ask permission to search a car); and the number of searches resulting in the discovery of contraband.

Based on the data that emerges, it’s clear that African-American, Hispanic, and American Indian drivers are in fact being stopped more than one would expect based on their overall representation in the driving population. But the 2008 study also concludes that inferring from this that there is police bias is  “problematic because [it] assume[s] that an officer knows the race of the driver before they make the stop. Very often, particularly at night, and when the vehicles are driving quickly, this is not the case.” As for the reasons for stops—whether for moving violations, equipment problems, or to check license or registration—those tend to be roughly similar across racial lines.

The most significant racial disparity involves consent searches. While the total number of such searches has dropped sharply —by 33 percent—since 2004, they are applied disproportionately: an African-American driver is about three times as likely to be the subject of a search as a Caucasian driver, with a Hispanic driver 2.4 times as likely to be the subject of a search. But when vehicles are searched, whites are more often found to be hiding contraband. Police found contraband 24.37 percent of the time when a white agreed to a search, but just 15.14 percent of the time with a minority driver. This finding is consistent with other studies nationwide.

Some are convinced that this evidence points to a clear pattern of discrimination. As Harvey Grossman, director of the Illinois ACLU asserts,  “The five years of data show a pattern of continuing disparate treatment based on race, particularly with consent searches.” In light of this view, when the 2008 report came out, Grossman urged then-Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich (remember him?) and Blago’s post-impeachment successor, Gov. Pat Quinn, to ban all consent searches by the Illinois State Police.

Presented by

James Warren, a former managing editor and Washington Bureau Chief for the Chicago Tribune, is an Atlantic correspondent. He also writes for The Huffington Post, The Daily Beast, and is a political analyst for MSNBC. He has previously written for the Atlantic on Kissinger and Nixon.

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