Black and Latino Americans have long argued that when it comes to traffic stops, there is racial profiling at play. The colloquial term “Driving While Black” was coined as early as the 1990s to describe this reality.
Countless studies have confirmed that Black drivers are stopped and searched by police officers more frequently than non-Black drivers, but a new study by the Los Angeles Times is one of the most comprehensive looks yet at an issue that has plagued communities of color for decades.
According to the study, “Los Angeles police officers search [B]lacks and Latinos far more often than whites during traffic stops, even though whites are more likely to be found with illegal items.”
“24% of [B]lack drivers and passengers were searched, compared with 16% of Latinos and 5% of whites… That means a [B]lack person in a vehicle was more than four times as likely to be searched by police as a white person, and a Latino was three times as likely.”
LAPD Chief Michel Moore argues, though, that these figures don’t tell the whole story: “[W]e do not believe the information provided tells a complete story. While the numbers presented reflect racial disparities when compared to the proportions of residential population, they do not define or describe the circumstances of each stop or search.”
They also point to the fact that LAPD officers are required to complete implicit bias trainings, and that the LAPD’s officer demographics mirror the city’s. “49% of officers are Latino, 10% are [B]lack, 31% are white and 10% are Asian,” so it’s not a simple, Black and white issue, they argue.
Jack Glaser, a professor of public policy at UC Berkeley, contends however that even when looking at the circumstances, the numbers were suspect. “If you are searching a quarter of the people you’re stopping, you’re looking to search people,” he said. “You’re not just pulling people over for running stop signs and then happening to see they have a gun-shaped bulge in their pocket.”
Research also shows that diversity in police departments doesn’t always reduce bias.
In Los Angeles, 27% of vehicle stops were of Black drivers, though the city is only 9% Black. The analysis also shows that comparatively, white drivers were actually more likely to have drugs, guns, or other “contraband” on them during a stop than Black drivers, though the LAPD stops and searches white drivers much less.
Bryant Magnum, a Black L.A. resident who was interviewed by the Times, echoed the feelings of many about the consistent stops and searches: “It’s very traumatic… I’m more worried about cops than criminals.”
L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti welcomed the findings, and also pointed to the fact that earlier this year, he ordered the LAPD to stop fewer drivers because of concerns about racial profiling. The Times report acknowledges that this seems to have been effective in reducing the total number of stops.
But it appears the disparity remains.