Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Police oversearching not all about race

A funny thing happened on the way to interpreting racial profiling data from Texas traffic stops: we found out white folks are subjected to unnecessary searches, too -- in some parts of the state, a lot of them.

Grits reported Sunday that disparities in who is searched at Texas traffic stops differ more by department than by race. Most departments do show racial differences -- i.e., usually blacks and Latinos seem to be searched more often than whites -- but much greater disparities exist from one department to the next.

The biggest problems seem to come in departments where oversearching is the policy for everyone, not just minorities. Sunday I looked at the big city PDs, so today I thought I'd examine what's happening at a few other departments.

Take, for example, the West Texas towns of Midland and Odessa. Whether you're black, white or green, you're much more likely to be searched after a traffic stop in Midland, hands down, compared to its sister city. Certainly, black folks are 4.2 times more likely than whites
to be searched in Midland, and Latinos are searched 1.7 times as often, compared to 2.6 and 1.5 times, respectively, for Odessa. So both departments exhibit racial disparities.

But that doesn't nearly tell the whole story. Drill deeper and we find that everyone gets searched more in Midland. Black folks there are 6 times more likely to be searched at a traffic stop than in Odessa; Latinos are about five times and white folks are more than 4 times as likely to be searched in Midland as in Odessa. You're even more likely to be searched by the Midland County Sheriff, regardless of race. This table depicts the percentage of total traffic stops where searches were conducted, by race:

How many Permian Basin drivers were searched
as a percentage of local traffic stops by race




Midland PD




Midland Sheriff




Odessa PD




That big a difference can't reflect legitimate law enforcement needs, it seems to me -- Midland PD and the Midland County Sheriff obviously just have policies of oversearching at traffic stops. Sure, blacks and Latinos are searched more than whites, and those disparities demand resolution. But that's not the only problem, or even the greatest source of disparity. A white person pulled over by the Midland County Sheriff's Department is more than 8 times more likely to be searched than the same driver pulled over by the Odessa PD. Oversearching affects everybody -- it's not just a racial concern.

Similarly, you're a lot less likely to get searched if you're stopped by the Lubbock Police Department than if you're stopped by the Lubbock County Sheriff, again regardless of race. The numbers reported by Lubbock PD showed large racial disparities, much worse on its face than the County Sheriff. Black folks were searched 5.4 times more often than whites by Lubbock PD, compared to 3.3 times more often by Lubbock County Sheriff. Again, though, when you drill deeper, the Lubbock County Sheriff has a much worse problem because they have a generalized policy of oversearching everyone.

How many Lubbock-area drivers were searched
as a percentage of local traffic stops by race




Lubbock PD




Lubbock Co. Sheriff




Bottom line, the Sheriff's policy of oversearching, not race, is the most important factor.
Minorities are more likely to be searched by both departments, but a black person stopped by the Lubbock County Sheriff is 16 times more likely to have their car searched than if they were stopped by Lubbock PD. Not to be outdone, white folks are an astonishing 21 times more likely to be searched at a traffic stop by the Lubbock Sheriff compared to the local police department.

I could do this for departments all over the state. My hometown of Tyler, for example in Northeast Texas, searched blacks 2.6 times more than whites, compared to the town of Longview down the road which searched blacks 2.7 times more often. Sounds pretty similar, right? Well, check out the numbers as a percentage of traffic stops:

How many Tyler/Longview drivers were searched
as a percentage of local traffic stops by race




Tyler PD




Longview PD




So once again, while both department's search patterns exhibit racial disparties, as a percentage of total stops, Longview is engaging in MANY more unnecessary searches than the Tyler PD. Indeed, whether a department has a policy of oversearching is a more significant factor than race: a white driver in Longview is more than twice as likely to be searched at a traffic stop as a black driver in Tyler.

To me, the debate over racial profiling isn't about accusing cops of racism, it's about treating people fairly and giving the public and departments tools to measure police practices to see if they're fair. These stats show that disparate treatment at traffic stops is about more than just race -- it's about documenting police practices that are eroding the Fourth Amendment for everybody.

See the report and local profiles, from which these figures were taken.

1 comment:

X said...

Since you don't have trackbacks, I will use your comment feature instead...

I linked to this story at: