Racial Profiling in Police Searches?

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Research released Sunday by the Bureau of Justice Statistics has found that, while black and Hispanic drivers are almost equally as likely as whites to be pulled over by police, they are significantly more likely to be searched during the stop.

Drivers had between an 8 and 9 percent chance of being pulled over regardless of ethnicity, the study found. But while only 3.6 percent of white drivers stopped by police were subsequently searched, 9.5 percent of black drivers and 8.8 percent of Hispanic drivers underwent a search.

Other racial disparities were also reported. Black drivers were found to be twice as likely to be arrested as whites, and both blacks and Hispanics experienced police use of force at higher rates than whites. Of those who had contact with the police in 2005, 82.2 percent of blacks felt the officers had behaved properly, compared with 91.6 percent of whites.

The report is sure to fuel the ongoing debate on the prevalence and scope of racial profiling, and previous attempts to measure the problem have quickly invited controversy. A 2002 study by the state of New Jersey found that those caught speeding on the southern end of the New Jersey Turnpike were disproportionately black, though it was criticized by federal government employees as being inconclusive even before it was published. The report did not attempt to answer the question of whether black drivers were more likely to speed or just more likely to get pulled over by police.

BJS statistician Matthew Durose, an author of the new report, cautions that its findings don't prove or disprove accusations of racial profiling. Still, David Harris, a law professor at the University of Toledo and an expert on racial profiling, says the higher percentage of blacks who feel they were mistreated during a traffic stop is significant, even if wrongdoing by police is debatable.

"Perception may not be reality, but perception counts in terms of how people view police officers and how they view the legitimacy of their actions," Harris says.

The results are similar to those found in a 2004 study by the Rand Corp., which relied on a novel "veil of darkness" approach to testing whether officers use race to determine who to stop. Researchers compared moving violation stops occurring one hour before sunset and one hour after in Oakland, Calif., figuring that, if racial profiling was occurring, it would be more pronounced in daylight, when officers could more easily determine the race of drivers. Instead, the study found the opposite--black drivers made up 54 percent of stops at night and only 50 percent of stops during the day.

However, like the Bureau of Justice Statistics study, Rand's research suggested a wide disparity in how drivers were treated after being stopped. Black drivers were more likely to experience discretionary pat searches from police, the study showed, and were more likely to have longer stops by police.

--Will Sullivan