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'Driving While Black' Highway Racial Profiling Still Going Strong throughout U.S.

Black drivers are nearly three times more likely than whites to be subjected to investigatory stops, and five times more likely to be subjected to searches.

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This article originally appeared in Washington Monthly and is reprinted here with their permission.

If there’s one issue that won Bill de Blasio the New York Democratic mayoral primary in September, on his way to a crushing 74 percent to 24 percent victory in the November general election, it was his full-throated opposition to “stop and frisk.” Under this policy, police officers stop, question, and frisk people they deem suspicious, usually with zero evidence that they’ve committed a crime. De Blasio’s predecessor Michael Bloomberg and his GOP election opponent Joe Lhota strongly defended stop and frisk, arguing that it helps reduce the crime rate. But the voters of New York had clearly had enough of a policy that, in practice, overwhelmingly targets minorities, especially young blacks, only a tiny fraction of whom are ever found to be carrying drugs, or a gun, or indeed to have done anything wrong at all.

What few Americans (or at least white Americans) know is that stop and frisk is not limited to New York City. Versions of the policy are in place across the country. And just as in New York, whatever crime-fighting benefits derive from the policy come at the expense of contravening basic American principles of equal treatment under the law and of angering law-abiding minority citizens whose support and cooperation the police need to fight crime.

Until recently, there has been limited data on the degree to which stop-and-frisk policies, as opposed to other factors or police tactics, specifically cause alienation and resentment. But a first-of-its-kind survey we conducted in Kansas City makes that connection quite clear.

Although it is hard to document how widely police departments employ stop-and-frisk-like tactics, the data tells the same story nearly everywhere studies have been done on who is stopped by the police: racial minorities are stopped at considerably higher rates than whites. The underlying reason for this is not racism by individual officers. Rather, it is police department directives requiring officers to make large numbers of stops just to check people out. Police departments widely favor this practice because it allows officers to proactively seize guns and drugs, in officer-initiated stops, rather than waiting to respond to crimes.

Police officers have long checked out people who look suspicious, but in the 1970s several scholars, led by James Q. Wilson, proposed turning this happenstance occurrence into an organized, disciplined practice. In the 1980s, the Reagan administration’s Operation Pipeline, a key war-on-drugs initiative that trained local departments in how to make stops to find drugs, refined the technique and spread its gospel widely across the country. A study by the National Institute of Justice in the mid-1990s showed how to use investigatory traffic stops to seize illegally carried guns. The New York City Police Department then applied the practice to stop and frisks of pedestrians.

Police leaders know that it takes a lot of stops to find just a few illegal drugs or weapons. A widely used police training manual, Tactics for Criminal Patrol, declares that “[c]riminal patrol in large part is a numbers game; you have to stop a lot of vehicles to get the law of averages working in your favor.” Or, as an officer put it to the late journalist Gary Webb, “you’ve got to kiss a lot of frogs before you find a prince.” (The irony in this statement, of course, is that law-abiding citizens are the “frogs” and criminals are the “princes.”) This numbers game helps to explain why 98.2 percent of the stops in New York City yielded no illegal weapon or drugs. This one point eight percent “hit rate,” as Columbia law professor Jeffrey Fagan has shown, is no better than chance.