January 13, 2008

Seat belt laws, racial profiling, and cops

In my previous post, I cite concern over cops unfairly pulling minorities over as a reason not to have laws mandating seat belt. (In the comments section Tim and I have a mini-debate over whether or not such laws would increase this.)However, after doing a bit of research I kind of regret making that assertion at all. (Though I still believe that seat belt laws do give cops too much leeway in making traffic stops--I'm just not convinced that they discriminate based on raced when making these stops.)Everyone "knows" that DWB (driving while black) can get you pulled over. Holding aside for a moment anecdotes that support this claim, the real question is whether data back it. It doesn't appear so.Check out this article, from my favorite editorial writer, Steve Chapman. Chapman says,

We've all heard of the offense of "driving while black." But not everyone has heard the good news: It doesn't exist anymore. According to an authoritative report, black motorists are no more likely than whites to be pulled over by police. So how has that study been greeted? As proof that police racism is still a powerful force. It's a widely accepted article of faith that cops systematically engage in racial profiling against dark-complexioned folks. Yet this is the second consecutive survey from the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics -- using information supplied not by police but by citizens -- that finds law enforcement to be admirably colorblind when it comes to routine traffic enforcement. Not a puny achievement, but one that was overlooked by people straining to find lingering discrimination.
The two big things here are that blacks are no more likely to be pulled over than whites (!) and that the data are coming from citizens rather than cops (who obviously have a motive to under-report the number of blacks they pull over).Chapman goes on to address critics:
The complaint is that though they get stopped at the same rate as whites, minority motorists are more likely to get unfavorable treatment during the stop. According to BJS, 3.6 percent of whites are searched, compared with 9.5 percent of blacks and 8.8 percent of Latinos. African-Americans are more likely to have force used against them and to be arrested. And they more often feel their treatment is unwarranted....Plenty of other elements could generate these divergent patterns. Why would black drivers be arrested more often? Maybe because African-Americans commit crimes at a far higher rate and are convicted of felonies at a far higher rate. In 2005, for instance, blacks were nearly seven times more likely to be in prison than whites....Given the racial gap in crime rates, it would be a shock if traffic stops didn't generate more searches and arrests of blacks than whites. Even in a world where cops are completely free of racial prejudice, that is exactly what you would expect. There is a similar difference, after all, between the sexes -- males are nearly twice as likely as females to be arrested during a stop. Is that because cops are sexists? No, it's because men commit more crimes.
The more striking part of this is that no matter what the data say, someone will use it as evidence of racial profiling:
Trying to find "compelling" evidence of racism in this data is a fruitless task. Robinson makes much of the fact that blacks who are stopped are more likely to be sent on their way without any corrective action, even an oral warning. That, he says, "suggests there was no good reason to stop these people." Or it might suggest that cops cut African-American motorists a bit more slack on petty issues, perhaps in the hope of improving their reputation. Whatever they do, the cops can't win. Blacks don't get stopped more often? Big deal. Blacks have higher arrest rates? Proof of racism. More blacks are let off without a warning? More proof of racism. And if fewer blacks were let off without a warning? I'll let you guess how that would be interpreted.
Going back to anecdotes of the DWB phenomena, why do many people have stories to tell if it's not actually happening? (Of course, I wouldn't say that there no instances of this occur, just that the data don't support the idea that it happens often at all.) There are a few reasons: First off, when people hear so much about cops pulling people over without cause, it's easy to assume that if you were pulled over, that it has happened to you. I know I fall victim to this. In my earlier post I write in the comments section how my friends and I were stopped on a Saturday night because we were teenagers. Do I know this is true? Of course not; but it just served to reinforce my preconceived notion of cops, so I assumed the stop was a profile based on age.Another possible reason that DWBs might be over-reported is that people don't want to blame themselves (either consciously or sub-consciously): It's much easier to accuse a cop of racism than admit to yourself that you were driving recklessly.In the end, I'm far from comfortable sayings cops don't make traffic stops based on profiles and prejudices. But I do think that the data I've read about don't support this idea. I also don't think that something is true because it's repeated over and over again--it's true because it's supported by empirical data.