Monday, January 03, 2005

Denton traffic supervisor stops 86% Hispanics

Kevin Krause covers criminal justice issues in Denton County for the Dallas Morning News, and when you see his byline on a story of any substance, it's almost almost always worth reading. On New Years Eve, the News published his fine piece independently analyzing racial profiling data from the Denton County traffic unit. Here's the money quote: "The lieutenant over Denton County's traffic enforcement unit wrote 86 percent of his tickets to people with Hispanic surnames during the last two years, an analysis by The Dallas Morning News has found." Overall, about half the unit's tickets went to Hispanic drivers.

Only six people work in the traffic unit, which until recently was run out of a constable's office but which now will be run from incoming Denton County Sheriff Benny Parkey's shop. Currently, various departments are working traffic enforcement in overlapping jurisdictions. Another constable told Krause, "A lot of police departments are working traffic in our precinct anyway," he said. "This [traffic unit] is a revenue-making thing."

Part of the problem appears to be that the traffic unit is targeting Mexican truckers, either suspecting them of drug trafficking, out of racial profiling, or for some other reason. Reports Krause:

Mario Salas of Mario's Cleanup in Fort Worth said his trucks haul construction waste to Lewisville's landfill. He said he often sees officers waiting near the landfill.

"Almost every day I have to go over there. Most of the time he's got Spanish people on the side of the road," Mr. Salas said.

Virginio Rios' company hauls Sheetrock to the landfill from Plano twice a day. He said that when officers see a Hispanic driver, they figure he doesn't have a license. Mr. Rios said he doesn't know whether officers are targeting Hispanic drivers, but they are determined to issue a ticket. He paid about $1,700 in fines from tickets to his drivers about three weeks ago.

"When ... [the traffic unit] stop you, they are going to give you a ticket," he said. "They look hard enough for something until they find something."

Krause's work shows the value of examining officer-specific racial profiling data. Supervisors can use that data to identify officers who stop or search minorities more often, then check to make sure there's a justifiable reason when they identify an "outlier" like this unit commander. They should do so, before enterprising reporters like Krause start to do it for them.

The point isn't to accuse any specific officer of racism. For example, if the lieutenant's assigned job was to target a particular type of trucking service, and, as Krause reports, many companies who own the trucks employ only Latino drivers, then perhaps one could envision a justification for those numbers. One might still reasonably question the resource allocation decision of targeting just those trucks, but that's a policy decision; the numbers don't of themselves imply racism by the officer. They're just a first clue at identifying the sources of observed macro-disparities -- a measuring tool to figure out what's going on.

I've crunched racial profiling data from raw ticket numbers (pdf) before, by the way, and it's no fun, so Krause deserves a lot of credit for going the extra mile to do this story. For more information, see the 2003 statewide report (pdf) by Steward and Associates comparing racial profiling data from more than 400 Texas law enfocement agencies.

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