Austin’s Weirdly Aggressive Traffic Stops

Police there are more likely to use injury-causing force against drivers they pull over than in any other large Texas jurisdiction.

Austin, Texas
Rahav Segev / Reuters

Almost two decades ago, Texas started requiring law-enforcement agencies to record demographic information during traffic stops to better understand racial profiling.

The state began requiring even deeper data collection after the 2015 death of Sandra Bland, the black 28-year-old pulled over for failure to signal a lane change, needlessly arrested by a state trooper, and thrown in jail, where she committed suicide 3 days later. Thanks to The Sandra Bland Act, researchers and reformers can now analyze all traffic stops in Texas by variables including the following:

  • Was force used?
  • Was anyone arrested for a Class C misdemeanor, a category of crime so minor that the maximum penalty for those found guilty is a fine and no jail time?
  • Was anyone arrested for an unpaid traffic ticket?

When Texas released its 2018 information on traffic stops, local newspapers noted that black and Latino motorists were disproportionately stopped and searched—a sad fact that should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the work of the Stanford Open Policing Project, whose researchers found similar patterns in a multistate analysis. The newly available variables were mostly ignored.

But Scott Henson, one of the nation’s finest criminal-justice policy wonks, dug deeper. A spreadsheet he created incorporates data on 4.6 million traffic stops conducted across 38 of the largest policing jurisdictions in Texas (excluding the Fort Worth Police Department, which had yet to report its data to the state).

He flagged three findings as especially noteworthy.

“Austin police are more likely to use injury-causing force against drivers they pull over than any other large Texas jurisdiction,” he wrote, “at 77 times per 10,000 stops. Houston PD was next, with a much lower rate at 53 per 10,000. After that were Denton PD (42), Corpus Christi (24), and Texas [Department of Public Safety] (17), with rates headed south from there. Austin police use force at traffic stops more than four times as often as state troopers, and at 20x the rate of the San Antonio PD!”

Next he turned to how frequently arrests were made for Class C misdemeanors. “Waco PD leads the pack,” he wrote, “arresting 451 drivers out of every 10,000 traffic stops. (Amazing: That’s nearly one in 20 drivers!) Following Waco, departments arresting the most people at traffic stops for Class Cs were League City (406), San Antonio (246), Odessa (236), Killeen (181), Lewisville (172), Beaumont (153), Houston (150), Midland (142), and Austin (124).”

Finally, he compared how frequently jurisdictions arrested people who had outstanding warrants for traffic tickets.

His takeaway was that “Austin PD stands out among the worst in each category: Most likely to use force at traffic stops; in the top five on arresting for outstanding warrants; and in the top ten for arresting drivers on Class C misdemeanor charges. The city has a reputation as liberal, but these data evidence quite authoritarian policing practices compared to other large Texas jurisdictions.”

Henson’s analysis is most relevant to Texans, but it also illustrates the general benefits of requiring law-enforcement agencies to collect and publish in-depth policing data.  If the data weren’t public, the people of Austin would have no way of knowing how their city measured up. Now that the public is armed with the knowledge that certain jurisdictions use force during traffic stops much more often than others, or jail motorists more frequently for very minor crimes, researchers and activists can figure out the reasons behind the disparity. And voters can hold local leaders accountable for the agencies they oversee.

Conversely, reformers can study standout police agencies that use force less frequently than their counterparts, in hopes of replicating whatever they’re doing right.

Information can also shape legislative efforts.

In Texas, a bill now under consideration would limit the ability of law-enforcement officers to arrest people for infractions punishable by a fine at most. To inform debate about the bill, Henson posted some striking figures to his blog:

  • Rate of arrest for Class C misdemeanors at traffic stops in 2018 by the Texas Department of Public Safety: 18.4 per 10,000 stops.
  • Rate of arrest for Class C misdemeanors at traffic stops in 2018 by Waco PD: 451.4 per 10,000 stops.
  • Proportion of jail admissions in Harris County in a four-month 2016 study for which a Class C misdemeanor was the highest charge: 11%.
  • Number of Texans in 2018 who sat out their Class C fines and fees in jail because they couldn’t afford to pay: 524,628.
  • New arrest warrants [or equivalent] issued … in 2018 for Class C misdemeanors: 2,141,656.
  • Number of Texans for whom judges waived Class-C fines for indigence in 2018: 54,794.

Some jurisdictions appear to be needlessly arresting Texans. Millions appear to be at risk of that same sort of arrest. That data makes a powerful case for change.