Tuesday, February 02, 2021

Deep in the Weeds: Sandra-Bland data provides first-ever detail on scope of arrests, searches at Texas traffic stops

For reasons Grits fails to understand, neither reporters, academics, nor independent researchers have mined Texas' extensive "racial profiling" dataset extensively, though it's one of the most robust quantitative treasure troves of data on police-traffic stops of which I'm aware, anywhere. To a large extent, new data reported after 2017's Sandra Bland Act (we were given data collection in lieu of a policy ban on Class C arrests) gave us a big-picture overview of what goes on at Texas traffic stops for the first time at a level of detail even experts hadn't seen before.

Your correspondent needed to pull some data this morning for other purposes, so let's dump some interesting, previously un-reported tidbits here.

The Scope of Texas Traffic Enforcement

In 2019, Texas law enforcement officers reported making 9.7 million traffic stops in racial profiling reports submitted to the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement.

About 3.9 million of those stops, roughly 40%, resulted in citations. (For reasons no one fully understands, citation totals have been falling for more than a decade.)

Agencies reported someone was arrested at 306,962 stops, or at 3.2% of all traffic stops in 2019.*

A majority of those arrests (168,951) related to penal-code violations. In many cases, officers discovered contraband that triggered these arrests. Seventy percent of all contraband found was drugs or drug paraphernalia.

Avoidable Arrests

Roughly a quarter of arrests at traffic stops (73,911) were for outstanding warrants. These are folks truly suffering from the Debtors Prison Blues:

In addition, 21% of arrests at traffic stops were for Class C misdemeanors (64,100), mostly moving violations and a few arrests for breaking municipal ordinances. These are the arrests that would be eliminated under the George Floyd Act (and should have already been eliminated: similar language was pulled out of the Sandra Bland Act before it passed in 2017). Here's a breakdown of arrests by type:

Police reported using force at .6% of stops, or 60,034 total times in 2019, but use-of-force rates by department varied widely.

Why Do We Search?

In aggregate, Texas cops conducted searches at about one in 20 traffic stops statewide (5.1%), discovering contraband a bit more than a third of the time (34.5% of searches resulted in contraband "hits."). Roughly a quarter of all traffic-stop searches in 2019 (26%) were conducted based on "consent searches" in which the driver gave the officer consent to search. Another 35.8% happened because the officer observed probable cause; and about a third were "inventory searches" or "searches incident to arrest."

This data from the Sandra Bland Act casts new light on what previously was a largely opaque process illuminated only occasionally and momentarily by the release of bodycam video or civil litigation. But the plural of anecdote isn't "data" and until recently, we didn't have department-level numbers to provide insight into local, much less statewide traffic-enforcement practices.


As I look at this heretofore-unreported data, it reinforces the key opportunities for decarceral legislation aimed at traffic stops: The Sandra Bland/George Floyd Act language would eliminate 21% of traffic-stop arrests. Reducing the number of warrants under the Omnibase program would shrink another sizable chunk.

Finally, if drugs make up 70% of contraband found, Grits would expect most of that to be marijuana. So drug-related penal-code arrests could also go down when we see 2020 data because of the Great Texas Hemp Hiatus. (Grits would prefer to see marijuana straight-up legalized, but even tamping down arrests via the new hemp law is an improvement over prior practices.)

Traffic stops are a major, front-end driver of county jail admissions. So anything that reduces how often they result in incarceration also reduces pressure on local taxpayers and avoids adding people to the jailhouse petri dish who might be exposed to COVID.

The newest round of "Sandra Bland" data comes out March 1st, and this time, problems with racial categorizations are supposed to have been fixed. So reporters and researchers should mark that date on their calendar (some agencies have already begun to submit) and set aside time for a deeper dive when that information becomes available. There's a lot of good stuff there.

*A handful of small agencies reported that they arrested someone at every traffic stop. This was clearly an error and those agencies' arrest totals were excluded from this calculation.


Gadfly said...

It's less than a decade, so not a full cause, but I think the Supremes' ruling of, 2015 IIRC, can't remember the case, that people could not be detained at traffic stops without probable cause is one factor.

SOFAQ said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
DLW said...

One of the possible reasons that citation numbers have been falling is that some stops are made with no intent to ever issue a ticket. The are made solely to see if the stop can result in uncovering some illegal conduct and if there is none, officers will issue a warning. Examples would be speeding at 5 miles per hour or less over the speed limit, various equipment violations, not giving a turn signal for 100 feet before the turn, or driving in the left lane will not passing. The stop is made and if no arrest follows it is not common for a citation to be issued.

SOFAQ said...

I can't do everything; you know.

I do appreciate Grits. Keep up the good work. I really like posts like this.

Anonymous said...


Is there a differentiation in the data between warrants for a non-class "C" offense and warrants for actual crimes? I would also be curious if there was any differentiation between traffic arrests for things like failing to signal and actual offenses contained in the traffic code like Reckless Driving?

Gritsforbreakfast said...

@4:00, they don't break it out, but overwhelmingly most warrants are for Class Cs. Millions are issued every year, which is orders of magnitude greater than those issued for actual crimes.

On the second question: Failure to signal is also in the traffic code. The data breaks out arrests for Class C moving violations, municipal ordinance violations, warrants, and Penal Code offenses Class B and above.

That said, "reckless driving" is a special case. The bills only affect offenses for which the punishment is only a fine, not jail time. Reckless driving *includes* potential jail time in addition to a fine (see here, so it wouldn't be covered.

dfisher said...

Just like every time before when Legislature pasted a bill on issue like the Sandra Bland Act, they knew nothing about the facts behind the death. After I completed my investigation into Bland's death I gave that information to DPS Director McCraw, who then ordered the Office of Inspector General to investigate the 2 TX Rangers for lying to the Waller CO Grand Jury and to him. Gov. Perry stopped the investigation.

From: Fleming, Rhonda [mailto:Rhonda.Fleming@dps.texas.gov]
Sent: Wednesday, January 20, 2016 6:33 AM
To: xxxxxx@xxxxxxx
Subject: Complaint against Texas Rangers

Mr. David Fisher,

Thank you for the conversation yesterday and more specifically, for providing your background information to understand the breadth and context of your concerns regarding the alleged actions of the Texas Rangers in the Sandra Bland investigation.

I am summarizing your comments to me as they might pertain to allegations and what the Office of Inspector General might/could investigate. Please feel free to edit and add to whatever I have not fully captured.

Additionally in your response, please provide any documents you feel are crucial to this office for this investigation.

Synopsis of allegations:

You allege that Ranger Shane Ellison and Lt. Ranger Kip Westmoreland are either incompetent or complicit in the cover-up, staging and orchestrating of Bland’s death. You allege that Ms. Sandra Bland had a known medical issue, Epilepsy, and that her head was traumatized by Trooper Brian Encinia during arrest and that no proper medical care was given to her by Encinia, EMS, or the Waller Co. Jail staff. You state that Ms. Bland made officials aware of her medical issue during the booking process and that she was on specific medication for this, a drug known as Keppra. You state that her medicine, Keppra, was not provided to her and was instead was in her purse which was in her car that was towed and stored. You allege Ms. Bland did not have access to her drug as required by her doctor and that this caused her to go into a gran mal seizure....

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