Blacks, Hispanics More Likely To Be Ticketed After Traffic Stops

When police in CT make traffic stops, minorities more likely to be ticketed

The most comprehensive survey ever conducted of police stops in Connecticut continues to show that black and Hispanic motorists who commit moving violations are more likely to be ticketed than are white drivers pulled over for the same offense.

A Courant analysis of data collected as part of the Connecticut Racial Profiling Prohibition Project shows that for the most common moving violations — speeding, traffic-light violations and stop-sign violations — black and Hispanic offenders statewide are 11 to 41 percent more likely to end up with a ticket than are white offenders stopped for the same offense.

Among more than 150,000 speeders, for example, 51 percent of white motorists stopped by police received a ticket, compared with 63 percent of black drivers and 66 percent of Hispanic drivers.

For drivers caught running a stop sign, 29 percent of white drivers were given a ticket for the offense, compared with 34 percent for blacks and 41 percent for Hispanics.

The disparity was stark for a variety of equipment-related issues as well, including defective lights, license-plate problems and tinted windows. For equipment violations collectively, white drivers were ticketed in 9 percent of stops, while blacks and Hispanics were ticketed in 15 percent and 18 percent of stops, respectively.

Douglas Fuchs, the police chief in Redding and a past president of the Connecticut Police Chiefs Association, warned that a statewide analysis of post-stop data does not give a true picture of policing in Connecticut.

"There's so many different factors that one has to take into account, that the only really fair way to do this analysis is ultimately to drill down to the officer level," Fuchs said. "Absent that level of analysis, there's too many anomalies, there's too many policies, there's too many rates at which we police differently to look at anything as a whole."

Researchers at Central Connecticut State University reported earlier this month that an analysis of roughly 600,000 traffic stops suggests that officers in at least some police departments are more likely to pull over black and Hispanic drivers. But that detailed analysis did not include a deep look at racial disparities in the outcome of traffic stops, including the often discretionary decision to give a ticket versus a warning.

The traffic-stop survey included data from every municipal police force except Stamford, as well as the state police and other forces. An analysis by The Courant two years ago based on traffic-stop data from far fewer departments found a similar pattern of disparities in the outcome of traffic stops. But that earlier analysis was hampered both because of the smaller sample size and because police at the time recorded only the initial purpose for the stop — and not whether the encounter led to a more serious violation that would justify a harsher outcome. It was unknown, for example, if a motorist stopped for speeding was then found to have a suspended license — an offense with a very high ticketing rate.

The new data, however, identifies whether a warning or ticket was given for an offense other than the violation that led to the stop, and The Courant analysis excludes those cases, in order to provide a clearer apples-to-apples comparison.

Based on tens of thousands of data points, all of the racial and ethnic differences for moving and equipment violations were highly statistically significant, with less than a 1 percent likelihood that any of the disparities was due to chance.

By contrast, there was only a small or no statistical difference by race or ethnicity in the rate of ticketing for motorists stopped for driving an unregistered vehicle or driving with a suspended license. Registration violations were the one category in which, to a statistically significant degree, black drivers were ticketed less often than white drivers — 70 percent for blacks and 73 percent for whites.

In every category, Hispanic motorists were ticketed more often than either white or black motorists who committed the same offense, The Courant's analysis found.

Fuchs, the Redding chief, said there could be benign explanations for the disparities. For example, he said motorists stopped for a moving violation might be more likely to receive a ticket if they were also found to have one or more equipment violations or a problem with their license or registration — even if they were let off with a warning for those other offenses.

He said the statewide numbers also could be skewed if communities with large minority populations are more aggressive overall with ticketing. Some big cities do in fact have above-average ticketing rates, but disparities are still evident in most categories even after excluding larger municipalities.

Not including traffic stops in the eight largest cities, 50 percent of white drivers pulled over for speeding received a ticket, compared with 61 percent for blacks and 64 percent for Hispanics. Those figures are within two percentage points of the statewide figures.

But excluding the larger cities eliminated the statistical difference in ticketing between white and black drivers stopped for traffic-light and stop-sign violations, although the gap between white and Hispanic drivers remained statistically significant.

Scot X. Esdaile, president of the Connecticut chapter of the NAACP, said efforts to explain away racial disparities in policing amount to throwing a blind eye to an obvious problem.

"If you look at all the stats and all the reports, there's clearly a serious problem with racial profiling and racism in the state of Connecticut," Esdaile said. "And police officers can put their head in the sand and try to debate it, but they really need to deal with this particular issue, because if we don't, then it's going to turn into a really hostile situation, where a powder keg is going to explode and we're going to have a similar situation in Connecticut like there are in other parts of the country."

The CCSU analysis focused primarily on evaluating the race of drivers who were pulled over for any reason, comparing stops during lighter and darker periods of dawn and dusk to determine whether the presence of sunlight — when it is easier to determine the race or ethnicity of a driver — affected the rate at which blacks and Hispanics were stopped. The researchers used the hours close to sunrise and sunset to minimize differences in the underlying demographics of drivers who might be on the road at different times of day.

Without bias, the theory goes, the racial breakdown of drivers who are pulled over during daylight hours should be similar to the breakdown of drivers pulled over during hours of darkness. For several police forces, the state's analysis found evidence of unexplained racial and ethnic disparities.

The CCSU researchers noted that an alternate method to test for racial bias is to evaluate actions by police after a stop is made — and in particular, whether there appear to be racial or ethnic differences in decisions to search a stopped vehicle. But because so few cars are searched — fewer than 3 percent in the Connecticut data — the small sample size can make it difficult to draw conclusions, particularly department-by-department.

The researchers did not look at disparities in the rates at which motorists received a ticket after being pulled over. But Ken Barone, who served as project staff for the Connecticut Racial Profiling Prohibition Project, said such an analysis is valid and may be used in later years as more data is collected.

"There wasn't a decision that, 'Oh, we don't want to do this; the data's bad,'" said Barone, a policy and research specialist with the Institute for Municipal and Regional Policy at CCSU. "The data's good. It probably should be done."

One disadvantage of the post-stop analysis is the ability to compare rates only within similar offenses, reducing the size of the sample pool — and, for now, making it difficult to evaluate individual departments. Even with a full year of data, the sample sizes for most municipalities were too small to make conclusions about racial or ethnic disparities in ticketing rates for particular offenses.

For speeding, the most common offense, 13 police forces had statistically significant differences in ticketing rates for Hispanic drivers compared with white drivers, including two towns — Bridgeport and East Hartford — that ticketed Hispanics less often than whites. For black motorists, seven departments had statistically significant differences in ticketing rates for speeding compared to whites, including two — Greenwich and Norwalk — in which black drivers were less likely to be ticketed.

In some of those towns, there were great differences in reported ticketing rates between white and non-white drivers. But while the numbers were statistically significant — meaning there was a very high likelihood that the differences were not due to chance or a small sample size — the margins of error were often very large, making it difficult to draw conclusions about the true size of the disparity.

The existence of racial and ethnic disparities does not prove racial and ethnic bias; statistics can't prove intent and numerous variables can affect statistical observation. For example, Hispanic motorists pulled over by police are younger on average and more likely to be male than white drivers who are stopped — and both men and younger drivers in general are more likely to be ticketed, regardless of race or ethnicity. In the Connecticut data, the disparities in ticketing remain even when controlling for age and gender, but there may be other, harder to identify variables that affect the numbers.

That is why Fuchs warns against any analysis until there is enough data to look at individual officers, saying statewide and even department-wide trends can be misleading.

"Different policies. Different size departments, different populations whom we police. It doesn't really tell you anything," he said. "You can't look at it across the board. You need to look at it by officer. That's what this really is supposed to be about — an individual officer's motivation."

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