Ten Miles Square

January/ February 2014 Driving While Black

“Stop and frisk” isn’t just a reality in New York City. New data shows how police target African Americans on highways across America.

By Charles Epp and Steven Maynard-Moody

black guy in car

If there’s one issue that won Bill de Blasio the New York Democratic mayoral primary in September, on his way to a crushing 74 percent to 24 percent victory in the November general election, it was his full-throated opposition to “stop and frisk.” Under this policy, police officers stop, question, and frisk people they deem suspicious, usually with zero evidence that they’ve committed a crime. De Blasio’s predecessor Michael Bloomberg and his GOP election opponent Joe Lhota strongly defended stop and frisk, arguing that it helps reduce the crime rate. But the voters of New York had clearly had enough of a policy that, in practice, overwhelmingly targets minorities, especially young blacks, only a tiny fraction of whom are ever found to be carrying drugs, or a gun, or indeed to have done anything wrong at all.

What few Americans (or at least white Americans) know is that stop and frisk is not limited to New York City. Versions of the policy are in place across the country. And just as in New York, whatever crime-fighting benefits derive from the policy come at the expense of contravening basic American principles of equal treatment under the law and of angering law-abiding minority citizens whose support and cooperation the police need to fight crime.

Until recently, there has been limited data on the degree to which stop-and-frisk policies, as opposed to other factors or police tactics, specifically cause alienation and resentment. But a first-of-its-kind survey we conducted in Kansas City makes that connection quite clear.

Although it is hard to document how widely police departments employ stop-and-frisk-like tactics, the data tells the same story nearly everywhere studies have been done on who is stopped by the police: racial minorities are stopped at considerably higher rates than whites. The underlying reason for this is not racism by individual officers. Rather, it is police department directives requiring officers to make large numbers of stops just to check people out. Police departments widely favor this practice because it allows officers to proactively seize guns and drugs, in officer-initiated stops, rather than waiting to respond to crimes.

Police officers have long checked out people who look suspicious, but in the 1970s several scholars, led by James Q. Wilson, proposed turning this happenstance occurrence into an organized, disciplined practice. In the 1980s, the Reagan administration’s Operation Pipeline, a key war-on-drugs initiative that trained local departments in how to make stops to find drugs, refined the technique and spread its gospel widely across the country. A study by the National Institute of Justice in the mid-1990s showed how to use investigatory traffic stops to seize illegally carried guns. The New York City Police Department then applied the practice to stop and frisks of pedestrians.

Police leaders know that it takes a lot of stops to find just a few illegal drugs or weapons. A widely used police training manual, Tactics for Criminal Patrol, declares that “[c]riminal patrol in large part is a numbers game; you have to stop a lot of vehicles to get the law of averages working in your favor.” Or, as an officer put it to the late journalist Gary Webb, “you’ve got to kiss a lot of frogs before you find a prince.” (The irony in this statement, of course, is that law-abiding citizens are the “frogs” and criminals are the “princes.”) This numbers game helps to explain why 98.2 percent of the stops in New York City yielded no illegal weapon or drugs. This 1.8 percent “hit rate,” as Columbia law professor Jeffrey Fagan has shown, is no better than chance.

To understand the phenomenon outside of New York City, where drivers rather than pedestrians tend to be the target of stop-and-frisk-type operations, we surveyed 2,329 drivers in and around Kansas City, a region typical of large, geographically segregated metropolitan areas in the country. The data from our survey allowed us to distinguish stops to enforce traffic safety laws—like speeding at fifteen miles per hour over the limit—from stops to investigate the driver. Our key finding is that these two types of stops differ from start to finish. In traffic safety stops, based on clear violations of the law, officers quickly issue a ticket or warning and let the driver go. In investigatory stops officers drag the stop out as they try to look at the vehicle’s interior, ask probing questions, and ultimately seek consent for a search (drivers almost always agree, telling us that they feel they have no real choice in the matter).

The key influence on who is stopped in traffic safety stops is how you drive; in investigatory stops it is who you are, and being black is the leading influence. In traffic safety stops, being black has no influence: African Americans are not significantly more likely than whites to be stopped for clear traffic safety law violations. But in investigatory stops, a black man age twenty-five or younger has a 28 percent chance of being stopped for an investigatory reason over the course of a year; a similar young white man has a 12.5 percent chance, and a similar young white woman has only a 7 percent chance. And this is after taking into account other possible influences on being stopped, like how you drive. Police focus investigatory stops on younger people, and so as people grow older they are less likely to be stopped in this way. But a black man must reach fifty—well into the graying years—before his risk of an investigatory stop drops below that of a white man under age twenty-five. Overall, black drivers are nearly three times more likely than whites to be subjected to investigatory stops.

Being black is also the leading influence on how far police officers pursue their inquisition in investigatory stops. In these stops, full-blown vehicle searches are relatively common. After taking into account other possible influences, black drivers in our survey were five times more likely than whites to be subjected to searches in investigatory stops. Searches are remarkably rare in traffic safety stops, and the driver’s race has no influence on whether the driver is searched in these stops.

These differences are not lost on African Americans. According to our survey, African Americans view normal traffic stops as legitimate exercises of law enforcement, and do so at about the same rate as whites do. Indeed, the main difference is that blacks, unlike whites, are even more likely to view a traffic stop as legitimate when the officer lectures them on driver safety, taking that lecture as a reassuring cue that they were in fact stopped for their behavior, not for the color of their skin.

Charles Epp and Steven Maynard-Moody are professors at the School of Public Affairs and Administration at the University of Kansas. They are coauthors, with Donald Haider-Markel, of Pulled Over: How Police Stops Define Race and Citizenship.

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