Race and Traffic Stops

Race and Traffic Stops

When the Nebraska Legislature in 2001 prohibited law enforcement agencies from stopping motorists solely on the basis of race, leaders of the Nebraska State Patrol were left scratching their heads. They were convinced their troopers did no such thing.

The new law reflected a growing national concern that Americans from minority racial groups experienced more intense scrutiny than white Americans. The state patrol, like other Nebraska law enforcement agencies, kept no statistics identifying the race of people stopped, or of how often people of various races or ethnicities were subjected to vehicle searches.

LB 593 changed all that, and required the state patrol as well as police departments and sheriff’s offices to keep detailed records of stops and the race of those stopped.

After a year, enough data had accumulated that Dawn Irlbeck, Ph.D., a professor in Creighton’s Department of Cultural and Social Studies, was asked to analyze what was going on.

Her report, published in 2005 as “Patterns of Interactions During Traffic Stops: A Study of Possible Racial/Ethnic Profiling” painted a hopeful picture that pointed law enforcement professionals in a useful direction.

Her first conclusion, after studying data concerning thousands of traffic stops — including video footage — found that minority motorists were not being stopped at a rate inconsistent with their numbers in the general population. This finding matched the state patrol’s own findings.

The more difficult question concerned another of the state patrol’s findings. Why were minority motorists, after being stopped, being subjected to searches at a far greater rate than their presence in the general population? Irlbeck’s study confirmed that finding, too.

The reason, she concluded, was that an unconscious bias, shared by law enforcement officers of all racial and ethnic backgrounds, led to more intensive post-stop questioning of minority motorists. The longer a motorist was questioned, she found, the more likely he or she was to be subjected to a search.

Application of statistical methodology and equations eliminated the presence of direct racial bias. “The bias was indirect,” she said, which can be harder to address.

“It’s so interesting, and consistent with what we know about shootings and what looks like racial profiling,” she said.

“Minority officers shoot minority people at the same rate that white cops do. They stop and search them at the same rate. It’s not so much conscious racial bias, it’s more a stereotype that we may not even be conscious of.”

She cites a story told by Henry Louis Gates, an African-America professor at Harvard University who won national attention in 2009 after being arrested while trying to enter his home.

Gates once told a story about hearing footsteps behind him while walking alone at night, she said. Growing anxious about what he feared might be a pursuer, Gates related his relief upon discovering the man was white. It was a confession that illustrates the ubiquitous of racial assumptions, Irlbeck said.

“Even though we try to do everything we can to be race appreciative, not necessarily color blind, but to treat everybody equitably and fairly, to see people as individuals and not as members of a group, still we draw conclusions based on stereotypes,” she said. “Gates did the exact same thing because we’re raised with those stereotypes since we’re babies, and it’s just so deeply ingrained.”