In December, the Statesman found that African-American and Hispanic motorists were searched more often when stopped, and contraband found less often for Hispanic drivers than white drivers.
Earlier this year, DPS Director Steve McCraw testified before state lawmakers that troopers do not engage in racial profiling and encouraged the public to instead look at the individual cases in which officers are accused of racial profiling. There have been about 40 in the last five years, and the Statesman requested the dashcam videos from those incidents through a request under the Texas Public Information Act.In 2001, the Texas Legislature required law enforcement agencies performing traffic stops to collect data which would allow an assessment of racial disparity. Your correspondent was part of a team back in the day successfully pushing the bill at the Lege and working with local departments afterward on implementation, so I'm particularly gratified to see that these data are proving useful in contemporary public debates after all this time.*
While DPS said they haven't found evidence to support any allegations of racial profiling, some of the videos raise more questions about how the department handles those investigations than they answer about racial bias in policing. Highlights of them are below, along with Sean Collins Walsh's report.
In addition to the videos, the Statesman looked again at stop data since 2009 to study how frequently individual troopers searched motorists, and how those search rates differ by race. Reporting and analysis of 14 million traffic stop records by Eric Dexheimer, Jeremy Schwartz and Christian McDonald found that 35 percent of officers studied searched minority motorists at more than twice the rate of white motorists, and most found contraband less often as a result of those searches.
Documenting racial disparity at traffic stops
Some disparity by race at traffic stops may be explained by factors like deployment patterns, higher poverty rates among minorities, and the rates at which people of different races are arrested for crimes. That's why the most useful possible analysis from these data focus on after-stop activities, especially the rate at which drivers of different races are searched and the contraband "hit rate" that results (although that's not the only useful analysis which may be performed). An academic statistician who studies these matters told the paper that “officers who search minorities at twice the rate of whites are statistically significant 'high disparity officers.' A search rate that is four or more times higher, he added, is 'pretty astronomical. … It’s a very egregious ratio.'” With that in mind, check out these top-line results:
- 35 percent of the 1,138 troopers included in the analysis searched black and Hispanic motorists at least twice as often as white drivers.
- 231 of the officers who searched black and Hispanic motorists at two times or more the rate at which they searched white drivers were less likely to find contraband while searching the minority drivers.
- 65 DPS officers searched minority drivers at least three times more often than the white motorists they stopped yet found contraband less often.
- 16 officers searched minority motorists more than four times as often as Anglos, with lower contraband hit rates.
At a minimum, then, that should be a red flag signalling a need for retraining or at least supervisory correction. But neither DPS nor any Texas department of which Grits is aware uses this valuable metric as part of their "early warning system" to identify officers with behavioral problems. (See a discussion of Austin PD's minimalist early warning system here.)
Grits should also mention that most local agencies don't even collect the contraband hit-rate data discussed here. It's probably time to go back into Texas racial profiling statute to adjust those data-collection elements now that we have a decade-and-a-half of experience regarding what information from that dataset is and isn't particularly useful.
Closed records on complaints
Col. McCraw used his discretion to release video from stops resulting in racial profiling complaints, but the paper's analysis of complaint videos failed to corroborate McCraw's evaluation. "Some show mundane police work or motorists making accusations at seemingly well-intended officers. But others show troopers asking to search vehicles or aggressively questioning motorists despite there being little apparent reason for suspicion."
Equally important, the article identified gaps in public information which prevent a more probative, external analysis: "The department withheld the motorists’ complaints as well as the investigative reports that resulted from them, which the Statesman also requested, for all but one of the incidents, citing a state law that makes confidential records from investigations that do not result in significant disciplinary action."
At one time, open records laws governing Texas law enforcement were among the strongest in the nation. But beginning in the late '80s, culminating in the codification of a bad Texas Supreme Court ruling in 1997, Texas' open records statutes on police discipline and law enforcement generally were gutted like a fish, letting agencies cover up wide swaths of misconduct which previously could be discerned by reporters or interested members of the public through public information requests. (Earlier this year, Grits expressed nostalgia for the remarkable level of since-lost law-enforcement openness in Texas in the halcyon days of my youth.)
The Statesman's big contribution to the racial profiling literature over the last year has been to dig deep at the Department of Public Safety, whereas all prior analyses have focused on local departments. That's both a good way to make it a statewide story without analyzing hundreds of departments and also useful because DPS issues more tickets than any other agency and collects the full panoply of racial-profiling data, whereas most agencies do not. Really good, important story; congrats to everyone involved.
* Note to Will Harrell, Ana Correa, Molly Totman, Dwight Steward, and Eva Owens: Ain't this a hoot?