A recent report from CBS News (below) addressed racial disparities during police traffic stops.
But during the majority of traffic stops, the officer may not know the race of the driver.
When I Was A Cop
We were running radar and I’m a chase vehicle waiting nearby. The radar operator calls out a license number and vehicle description. We are using a fifteen-mile an hour variance; the driver must be going fifteen miles an hour over the speed limit. I pull over multiple vehicles.
I set up behind bushes at a spot where there was a recent fatal accident because a driver ran a stop sign. I have a clear view of the vehicle but not the driver. I pull over and ticket drivers for doing the same thing.
While on routine patrol, I spot vehicles speeding, tailgating or making improper turns. I’m usually in heavy traffic and I won’t make the stop unless it can be done safely, which means I’m scanning the locations of cars and trucks and pedestrians looking for the right time and place. If I’m pacing the vehicle (matching my speed to his), that’s where my focus is.
My point is that in almost every traffic stop I made, I didn’t have a clue as to who the driver was or the group he or she represented. I was too busy with other issues.
Yes, I acknowledge that there are jerks in policing in the same way I know there are unscrupulous lawyers, priests, ministers, reporters, politicians, research scientists and people in every profession who do harm.
But the vast majority of police officers I knew (and know now) were openly dedicated to protecting people equally. They understand America’s history of race relations. They embrace constitutional principals. They are honorable people doing a very difficult job.
I intensely dislike anyone who judges the group based on the actions of a few and that includes the feelings of many about cops. It doesn’t matter if you are gay or black or female or disabled or poor, anyone treating citizens based on elitist, racist, homophobic or sexist notions is a first-class idiot. But the studies regarding disparities during traffic stops assume racist intent; there are those insisting that racism is the only possible explanation.
There are traffic stops where the race of the driver is self-evident. When I was the director of public information for the Maryland Department of Public Safety, I drove a civilian looking state vehicle and I was pulled over several times in African American neighborhoods because people who lived there complained about outsiders coming into their community to buy drugs. The officers were simply doing what residents asked them to do.
At the same time, I’m aware of African American friends and coworkers who were stopped for traffic violations and insisted they were doing nothing wrong. I have no reason to disbelieve them.
But We Are Losing Cops
If we insist that racist attitudes are solely responsible for traffic disparities, why be a cop? Why would you stay?
Per Department of Justice data, the vast majority of people stopped by the police for traffic and criminal matters felt that officers behaved responsibly. Per Gallup, policing is one of the highest rated professions in the country.
But the endless negative publicity (some of it deserved) is causing massive retention and recruitment problems for law enforcement. Families are telling officers to get out, and to get out now. Officer suicides and PTSD are real problems. The number of proactive stops (including traffic) is plummeting, Crime in America.
If you were constantly told that you belong to a profession that is using race as a pretext for traffic stops, would you stay or join?
There is a multitude of studies for traffic stops over decades showing that black drivers are overly represented. The report by CBS is one of many.
But the officers I talk to maintain that they didn’t know the race of the driver when they made most stops.
Do I buy the assertion that some cops make traffic stops based on race? Sure, there are jerks in this and all professions.
Do officers sometimes use traffic violations as a pretext for stopping a vehicle? Yes. I saw a driver look at me and he immediately bent over like he was putting something under his seat. He didn’t use a signal while making a turn. I made a traffic stop. He was drunk as hell. He was hiding a bottle of liquor.
First, we within the law enforcement community need to own this issue. We are aware of problem officers and we understand that they will eventually create issues for us all.
But cops need assurance that society supports them in what they do. The vast majority of traffic stops are necessary because those drivers endanger those around them.
Most members of society have never freed accident victims from crumpled vehicles. We know the smell of torn apart cars and bleeding victims. We understand the dilemma of figuring out who to treat first. We’ve made death notifications at 1:00 in the morning. Traffic enforcement is personal to us.
I’ve said in previous articles that if society doesn’t want traffic stops for minor issues like missing tag lights or one tail light out or minor speeding, say so. The same applies to arrests for an endless number of minor criminal acts.
When I was a cop decades ago, the emphasis was on quality traffic stops and criminal arrests. That changed with proactive policing (take care of the small stuff and the big stuff will take care of itself), and a greater emphasis on arresting drunk drivers via Mothers Against Drunk Driving. Newspapers, society and communities demanded more stops, more arrests.
Police executives and officers listened to what communities and society wanted and responded.
If there is a reassessment, then say it loud and clearly.
I’m not quite sure we can blame cops when society wants or demands protection from traffic violations and criminal offences that disturb the peace of the community. In my attendance at community meetings, traffic enforcement and frustration with people publically drinking or openly doing drugs or being too loud was common.
We can partially resolve the discussion now with clear guidance to cops as to what constitutes a quality or worthy traffic or criminal stop. Is the driver doing more than ten-fifteen miles an hour over the speed limit? Is he viciously tailgating someone? Is she swerving all over the road? Then make the stop. I don’t care who is driving.
Anything less is a question society and communities need to decide for themselves. Just don’t demand enforcement and then condemn cops for responding.
In an effort to curb racial profiling, North Carolina became the first state to demand the collection and release of traffic stop data. University of North Carolina professor Frank Baumgartner took a look at that data and wrote a book on the subject titled, “Suspect Citizens.”
Baumgartner analyzed 22 million traffic stops over 20 years in the Tar Heel State and found that a driver’s race, gender, location and age all factor in to a police officer’s decision to pull over a vehicle.
“The purpose of our traffic laws should be to keep us all safe. But they have come to be used as an excuse to do a police investigation,” Baumgartner told “CBS This Morning: Saturday” co-host Michelle Miller. He said it made him realize “people aren’t making stuff up.”
The data showed that African Americans had been stopped twice as often as white drivers, and while they were four times more likely to be searched, they were actually less likely to be issued a ticket. The study also highlighted that whites were more likely to be found with contraband than blacks or Hispanics, CBS News.
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