Searches and contraband: Traffic stops of minority drivers

CHARLESTON, SC (WCSC) - Researchers at Stanford University believe nationally, state patrol officers may use a lower bar to search minorities than whites.

For two years, "The project has collected and standardized more than 100 million records of traffic stop and search data from 31 states… Data from 20 states, comprising more than 60 million state patrol stops, are sufficiently detailed to facilitate rigorous statistical analysis."

They found black drivers were issued 20 percent more tickets than white drivers and Hispanic drivers received 30% more tickets than other drivers from 2011 to 2016. They also found minorities were searched and ticketed more.

Stanford researchers are now teaming up with local reporters throughout the country to hone in on the state data. Live 5's Aaron Maybin and Carter Coyle traveled to Arizona for a training workshop last month.

They reviewed the national findings and worked with the researchers to import and code more than eight million traffic stop entries provided by South Carolina Highway Patrol to Stanford.

Highway Patrol confirmed the numbers provided by Stanford were correct, but Communications liaison Lt. Kelley Hughes says the agency strongly disagrees with the interpretations in the research.

Looking at the numbers

Hispanic drivers in South Carolina were most likely to be searched after being pulled over. About 7.4 percent of them were searched after a stop.

Black drivers were more likely to be searched than white drivers, about 2.8 percent of the time. By comparison, 1.9 percent of white drivers were searched after they were stopped.

"Just about every week we get calls about somebody being stopped by policemen," said Elder James Johnson with the civil rights group National Action Network. " Matters a whole lot in every state. First of all, we've got to get people in office in order to change what's happening now. This is not a priority for our government."

Search rates alone do not prove racial profiling.

According to Stanford researchers, a search rate disparity like the one in the South Carolina numbers could be explained if certain minority groups are simply more likely to have contraband.

"Higher search rates could be driven by legitimate police work if, hypothetically, minority drivers were more likely to behave in a way that suggests they are carrying contraband," explained Sharad Goel, Stanford Assistant Professor of Management Science and Engineering.

That's why it's also helpful to look at another number: hit rate.

Hit rates in South Carolina numbers
Hit rates show how frequently officers find contraband after a search. Contraband can include items such as illegal weapons or drugs.

"The stereotype out there is that blacks have got guns and drugs in their cars," said Johnson. "The dangerous part of that is being stopped for a traffic stop and it leads to something else."

According to the data, troopers found contraband on black drivers in 28.2 percent of searches, while 26.7 percent of white drivers searched had contraband. Officers found contraband in 13.5 percent of searches of Hispanic drivers.

So looking at search rate and hit rate, Hispanic drivers were most likely to be searched but least likely to have contraband.

"The substantially lower hit rates for Hispanics is stronger evidence that bias is at play in search decisions," said Goel. Though, he qualified, "There are caveats to that analysis, too."

We also shared the information with Diana Salazar-Guzman with the Latinos Association of Charleston.

"Our people need to feel comfortable in our state, need to feel comfortable where they live. What we try to do is wake up awareness of their rights," said Salazar-Guzman. That includes educating the community about interacting with officers and that drivers have the right to refuse if any officer asks to search your car.

"Let's say I understand poquito ingles. I'm not going to be able to defend myself. I don't want to get arrested… I think, 'I might as well let them search the car,'" said Salazar-Guzman.

She and Johnson agreed they are concerned with improving interactions between minorities and all law enforcement agencies, not just state patrols in the United States.

Highway Patrol's perspective

Lt. Kelley Hughes with Highway Patrol says these findings need perspective and context.

"It's important to note there are multiple types of searches," he said. "One type is search incidental to arrest."

Those are made after a subject is arrested and before they are transported.

"This is standard protocol for the officer's safety," he said.

He says the data provided to Stanford includes searches incidental to arrest.

Those are different than probable cause searches, for example, which leave more to an officer's discretion.
"The South Carolina Department of Public Safety took the same data that Stanford used and looked at the number of arrests made from the traffic stops by race category. The department found that with Hispanics, 90 percent of the searches involved an arrest and 10 percent did not. That's compared to approximately 80 percent of searches completed involving an arrest for the other two races mentioned."

He said because 90 percent of the searches of Hispanics involved an arrest, there is "no way to draw the conclusion" that Hispanic drivers were searched with a lower threshold of evidence. Some may have happened after the arrest as part of protocol.

He said SCDPS could not break down the data to indicate how many of the searches happened before versus after an arrest. That could help further explain if a search caused the arrest, or if it occurred after the driver was arrested for something else.

Hughes wanted to point out that the data provided to Stanford included interactions beyond just random traffic stops. They include, for example, traffic events or incidents where a citizen called in a concern and they responded.

SCHP emphasized that it is "committed to fair and unbiased policing." Lt. Hughes says troopers in our state undergo annual cultural and diversity training. SCDPS shares data quarterly with unit commanders to look for any red flags related to searches, tickets and arrests.

Troopers have had in-car cameras for two decades, Hughes said, and supervisors are required to review hours of video randomly each month. Hughes said the agency's checks and balances are made stronger by annual reports they present to the community.

"We have to realize we've got some good officers out there. The majority of them are good," said Johnson.

High stakes during stops

Both activists said their concerns with traffic stops aren't limited to one agency or one study.

Their message is that stops have high stakes.

"We know Hispanics are very afraid now of being stopped by police because they're afraid they're going to be deported," said Johnson.

"We have a lot of families being separated from headlights, taillights," said Salazar-Guzman. "I know why are cops! They are here to protect all of us. I understand that."

She hopes more communication and understanding of culture and individual history can help build bridges.

"We need to find some kind of peace and help these families," she said.

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