Readers Respond

Driving while black

The news that black motorists in Maryland are more likely to be pulled over than their white counterparts, and are more likely to be subject to a search yet are less likely to be caught with contraband, is disturbing but not surprising. It was Maryland, after all, where Robert Wilkins, a Harvard-educated attorney who is African American, was pulled over in 1992 with his family in Western Maryland for a minor speeding violation and was then subjected to a 45-minute roadside search including drug-sniffing dogs. Mr. Wilkins, who is now a federal judge, sued the state police and won a landmark settlement that helped bring the concept of "driving while black" to the national consciousness.

In fact, it is as a consequence of that case that we have the data showing that even now, 25 years later, blacks are the subject of traffic enforcement out of proportion with their share of the population in jurisdiction after jurisdiction. As The Sun's Kevin Rector reported, blacks make up 27 percent of Baltimore County's population but 50 percent of stops and 53 percent of searches. In Anne Arundel, which is 16 percent black, African Americans are subject to 29 percent of stops and 35 percent of searches. In Howard County, 18 percent black, it's 37 percent of stops and 43 percent of searches.


The response from the police agencies in question was fairly consistent: They say they are committed to fair, unbiased policing and train their officers to act accordingly. They also note that the data can only tell part of the story, since officers are making decisions in the field based on a range of factors that aren't necessarily apparent, like a driver's previous record or his or her driving behavior immediately before the stop.

Yet the aggregate picture from some 2.8 million traffic stops recorded between 2013 and 2016 is consistently troubling and should cause police agencies to ask some hard questions about what implicit biases their officers may hold. Yale researchers made headlines this fall with a study documenting implicit bias among preschool teachers when it comes to discipline. They found that the teachers — regardless of their own race — were more likely to look for misbehavior among blacks, and especially black boys, than among other children. There is no reason to expect that police officers, whose job, after all, is to look for misbehavior, would not share the same implicit biases.


The data offer some reason to support that notion. In many departments, there is a substantial differential in terms of how often certain kinds of traffic stops lead to searches based on race. For example, in Baltimore County, whites stopped for driving while impaired or for speeding violations are actually more likely than blacks to be searched. But blacks stopped for violations that are less clear threats to the safety of others — such as vehicle malfunctions, registration problems or failing to wear a seat belt — were much more likely to be searched. Similar trends hold among other agencies: Blacks are much more likely to be stopped and searched on what we might consider discretionary pretexts than whites are.

The good news here is that the data have now been compiled in such a way that they can help solve the problem. Rather than the aggregated, state-wide reports the government has put out over the years, a North Carolina-based advocacy group, the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, used Public Information Act requests to get the raw data and aggregated it into an easy-to-use website that not only provides department-level numbers but also enables tracking by individual motorists or officers. It's not perfect, in that the state does not collect data on certain kinds of traffic stops including those based on the use of radar (as if that eliminates any possibility of officer discretion), and it doesn't include Baltimore City, which does not report its numbers, in part because its officers lack access to the technology to make it practical to do so. Both shortcomings need to be fixed. Even so, the database provides an opportunity for police agencies to go beyond generic training programs and to drill down into what particular officers are doing and why.

Departments need to be analyzing the data to spot discrepancies between the demographics of the communities individual officers are assigned to patrol and the race of the motorists they stop and search. In some cases, there may be good explanations for disproportionate stops and searches of minorities, but in other cases, commanders may spot officers who are letting either overt or implicit bias get in the way of fair, constitutional policing. Such an approach could serve as an early warning system for officers whose practices might be problematic and could enable departments to offer them individualized help in eliminating biases.

Mandatory sensitivity training for all officers is certainly necessary, but it's clearly not sufficient. If police agencies are serious about eliminating racial bias from law enforcement, they need to make clear to their officers that their conduct will be measured and analyzed and that they will be held accountable for it.