Race still plays role in police traffic stops

Police officers in 108 law enforcement agencies in Maryland pulled over 871,631 vehicles in 2009.

White motorists were stopped 451,450 times, or 51.9 percent.

Black motorists were stopped 333,487 times, or 38.3 percent.

Maryland has 5.7 million residents, 63 percent of whom are white and 30 percent of whom are black.

Little has changed since state authorities began collecting information on traffic stops back in 2002, when data then showed that 40 percent of all drivers pulled over by police were black. The state's population was then about 28 percent black.

What's even more interesting about the most recent figures released last month by the Governor's Office of Crime Control and Prevention is the outcome of the stops, which also hasn't changed since 2002.

Researchers found that white drivers were more likely than black drivers to receive a warning than a ticket, in stops that didn't result in arrest or other outcomes. Whites were warned nearly 48 percent of the time and ticketed 39 percent of the time, while blacks were warned in 38 percent of their stops and ticketed 44 percent of the time.

Hispanic males were more than twice as likely than white males to be arrested after a stop.

Black drivers were stopped most often for an expired registration or faulty equipment and white drivers were likely to be stopped for faulty equipment and speeding.

Police searched vehicles or occupants 33,701 times.

Black drivers were subjected to 8,095 searches, while white drivers were subjected to 7,327. Most of the stops involving black drivers were consensual, meaning the cop suspected something was wrong and asked permission to look. Most of the searches of white drivers occurred after an arrest had already been made.

That could suggest police were more suspicious of the black drivers they pulled over than the white drivers.

Here's a fascinating stat from the study: "Caucasians were the most likely to have contraband confiscated (15.6 percent), followed by African Americans (11 percent)."

Which means the cops are searching many cars driven by black motorists and finding nothing.

That doesn't necessarily mean the search was wrong. The officer might well have legitimate grounds to suspect something, but even so, the fact that the officer in so many cases involving black drivers had to get consent to search shows the cop didn't have enough legal probable cause to look on his own.

And the report — mandated by state authorities to settle a lawsuit alleging racial profiling by the Maryland State Police nearly a decade ago — offers no analysis and is woefully lacking in enough specific information to draw substantive conclusions.

The police agencies are not identified. They include Baltimore city and all counties, as well as the state police, but the report doesn't say where the stops were made, either by jurisdiction or by neighborhood. The race of the police officers making the stops are not disclosed. Are white officers pulling over a disproportionate number of black drivers? Or vice-versa? Does a white officer give a black driver a ticket and let a white driver off with a warning? Or the other way around?

Even the study's authors caution how their numbers should be used

In their conclusion, they note "major limitations" and stress that "the purpose of this report is to discover whether drivers who exhibit similar behaviors, but are of different ethnicities, are stopped at different rates and whether the traffic stops result in different treatments and outcomes.

"However, the current method allows the possibility of error by neglecting confounding variables, such as driving behavior, the driver's violation history and law enforcement deployment," the study says. "No definitive conclusions can be drawn from this report regarding the effect of ethnicity in the frequency or characteristics associated with traffic stops due to data limitations beyond the scope of what reporting agencies could provide."

Too bad, because with a little bit more data, a few more boxes checked on the form, we could learn so much more.

It's important because allegations of racial profiling on Maryland roadways won't go away. And the little data accumulated by the governor's crime office shows a troubling pattern that has continued since 2002 and at the very least raises questions that need answering.

The NAACP and ACLU sued the Maryland State Police in 1998 alleging racial profiling by that agency and settled in 2003 with a five-year consent decree which required data collection, training of officers and providing results of racial profiling investigations.

The ACLU says that the racial breakdown of traffic stops involving state police troopers is about the same now is it was in 2002 — 45 percent of drivers pulled over were black. Baltimore Sun reporter Andrea Siegel said in a February article that troopers "found drugs on minorities no more frequently than on white drivers."

But even after the decree, the ACLU says it has failed to obtain 10,000 pages of documents about state police investigations into complaints of racial profiling.

The organization sued and won in the Maryland Court of Special Appeals, the state's second-highest court. Judges left intact a Baltimore Circuit Court ruling that ordered the records released but with the names of troopers omitted.

But the appellate judges warned police that the lower court could have and perhaps should have simply ordered all the records released, including the names, noting that the state signed a consent decree obligating the agency to "combat racial profiling by its officers."

The court noted that none of the 94 racial profiling complaints investigated by state police over five years were upheld. The records being sought, the judges ruled, "will reveal whether the MSP at the institutional level is properly handling racial profiling investigations and therefore complying with the letter and spirit of the consent decree as well as what the law is in the state."

Raquel Guillory, a spokeswoman for the Maryland attorney general's office, said that state authorities are appealing the decision and that arguments before the Court of Appeals are scheduled for Nov. 5.

Seth A. Rosenthal, an attorney for the NAACP who is litigating the issue, said the group simply wants to know if the state police "are taking seriously the complaints of racial profiling" and upholding the terms of the consent decree signed in 2003.

Without the data, Rosenthal said, there is no way to determine whether the agreement between the NAACP and the Maryland State Police had any meaning. "It may be that when the records are released, it will show the police are doing a bang-up job, and if they are, we don't know why they don't want anybody to know."

"There is no doubt that the state police has promulgated policies to eradicate racial profiling," Rosenthal said. "The question is whether those policies are effective and whether troopers are following them."

But he noted the stats on black drivers being pulled over seem no different now than in 2003. He said the investigations into the 94 profiling complaints could be thorough, but his clients want to know, "Why are citizens 0 for 100?"

State officials wouldn't comment on specifics of the appeal, but they expressed concern after the Court of Special Appeals decision, saying the ruling could open for public scrutiny a wide variety of state personnel information that has been considered private.

We need to know if the state police are complying with the new rules. We also need more detailed information on the stops themselves so we know exactly what is happening. The numbers compiled by the state show there's something worth examining.


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