While police stop white, black, and Hispanic drivers at similar rates, members of the latter two groups are much more likely to be subjected to a roadside search, according to a new report on citizen-police encounters from the Justice Department's Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS). But BJS refused to conclude that the difference in search rates is caused by racial profiling, saying other factors could be at play.
Civil liberties advocates contend that the report is flawed and that BJS is pulling its shots. They point not only to missing data in the current report, but also to political interference in the Justice Department on earlier reports, including a controversial 2005 report on racial profiling that was buried after then BJS head Lawrence Greenfeld refused to remove information about racial profiling. Greenfeld was shortly after forced from his position.
The current report studied police-citizen interactions in 2005 and found that 43 million Americans, or 19% of the population, had some form of interaction with a police officer that year. Some 18 million of them were for traffic stops.
In those traffic stops, only 3.6% of white drivers pulled over were searched, compared to 8.8% of Hispanics and 9.5% of blacks. Blacks were also more than twice as likely as whites to be arrested during a traffic stop and nearly four times as likely to report being subjected to force, while Hispanics faced a 50% higher chance than whites of being arrested and were nearly twice as likely to be subjected to force.
Even when police searched motorists' vehicles, they were unlikely to find anything. Fully 88% of all vehicle searches resulted in no contraband found. In previous reports, BJS published figures on "hit rates," or successful searches, by motorists' race, but it did not include that critical information in this year's report.
"The omission of data on hit rate by race is a glaring omission," said Scott Morgan, associate director of the Fourth Amendment education group Flex Your Rights. "Racial profiling apologists will first argue that there is no such thing as racial profiling, and when you refute that, they revert to the argument that profiling is justified by higher levels of criminal activity," he told Drug War Chronicle. "Hit rate data is crucial to refuting the argument that this discriminatory treatment of minorities is justified by their behavior."
Previous versions of the BJS report have found that police were less -- not more -- likely to find drugs or other contraband in vehicles driven by minority drivers than by white drivers. The lack of such data in the current report is a serious problem, said Reginald Shuford, senior staff attorney for the ACLU's Racial Justice Program.
"Many studies have concluded that despite being more likely to be searched by police, African American and Hispanic drivers are actually less likely to be carrying contraband," Shuford told the Chronicle. "This report is silent on that issue, but this is data that absolutely must be recorded and analyzed."
Shuford also scoffed at BJS's refusal to qualify its findings as evidence of racial profiling. "The numbers speak for themselves," he said. "Most people would look at these numbers and conclude that racial bias and profiling are alive and well. BJS's contention that they are unable to conclude that this is racial profiling is not particularly compelling," he said.
But BJS statistican Matthew Durose, one of the report's authors, defended the report's lack of hit rate data and limited conclusions. "The study was based on a sample size that is too small to form reliable estimates," he told the Chronicle. "In our sample of 64,000 respondents, 189 were stopped and searched by police, and only 30 cases involved African American drivers stopped and searched. We don't really have the numbers to form reliable estimates," he said.
As for calling it racial profiling, Durose said there was insufficient information. "There are countless circumstances that could explain these searches, and we don't have the officers' reasons for conducting them, so we are not going to say we have proven racial profiling. We don't take that leap. What we have done is to alert the public that this is the survey data."
But the critics were not mollified. "We think that the report demonstrates clear and significant racial disparities in what happens to motorists after they are stopped by law enforcement," said the ACLU's Shuford. "If BJS doesn't have a big enough sample size, they need to get one. This is really critical information, and it is likely it would be consistent with earlier studies, which found that African Americans and Hispanics are no more likely to be carrying contraband than whites."
"BJS released a report that shows that racial profiling exists, and then they deny it," said Flex Your Rights' Morgan. "And then they omit the hit rates. And they released this on a Sunday. The absence of critical data, the decision to go for a Sunday release, the burying of the last report on racial profiling -- all this paints a picture of a Justice Department not any more interested in talking about racial profiling than Congress forces it to be. These reports are congressionally mandated, and I get the sense that we wouldn't have them at all -- even in flawed form -- if Congress didn't make them do it."
BJS says it cannot produce evidence of racial profiling. The critics say it's because it doesn't want to. Meanwhile, another black guy is probably getting pulled over and searched on the New Jersey Turnpike right now.