Thursday, February 24, 2005

Don't Mind If I Take a Look, Do Ya?

When a cop utters those words at a traffic stop, do you feel like you can say "No"?

Most people don't realize they can refuse consent to search at a traffic stop, and that lack of public education allows law enforcement to misuse so-called "consent searches." A new study to be released today finds that consent searches -- where officers have no probable cause to search, but request permission to do so at their own discretion -- account for a significant portion of racial disparities in who is searched at Texas traffic stops.

In other words, officers are choosing to search minorities at higher rates when there is no policy or law enforcement reason to do so.

I'll be at a press conference at the Texas capitol later this morning for the official release of the second-ever statewide analysis of racial profiling data gathered by Texas law enforcement agencies. Entitled, "Don't Mind If I Take A Look, Do Ya?," the study focuses especially on searches, consent searches and when contraband is found at traffic stops. (I'm listed as a "Primary Editor" in the acknowledgements, and have been working on the issues surrounding racial profiling data analysis for nearly four years on behalf of ACLU.)

Last year's report looked at data from over 400 agencies. This year, we examined reports from 1060 total agencies, covering many millions of traffic stops, and making this the largest racial profiling dataset ever accumulated or analyzed. Go here to download the report and look at snapshots of local data. The PDF file contains tables with detail for the different departments.

In 2001, the Texas Legislature passed SB 1074 that required agencies to gather this data and report it annually to their local governing body each March. The Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, ACLU, NAACP and LULAC teamed up to request those reports under the Texas open records act, then Dr. Dwight Steward, a former UT economist, crunched the numbers to produce the report. I should mention that the project could never have been completed without
the indefatiguable efforts of Molly Totman at the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition.

The report also proposes legislative reforms that would make the data more useful to police supervisors and the public to identify and reduce racial profiling. I'll be blogging about different aspects of the study over the next few days, but wanted to put up the link this morning, at least, to the main report, since I'll be out most of the day.

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