Racial bias in policing has been a major focus of media attention over the past two years, and there is reason to believe that it will continue to be a highly discussed topic in 2017. Those who deny bias in policing point out that in the vast majority of cases, stops are made legally and police do find evidence of wrongdoing upon searching suspects.
But even if traffic stops and other detainment measures are legal, are they necessary and appropriate? The reality is that if you stopped and searched nearly anyone often enough, you could find evidence of illegal activity or contraband. Therefore, if one group of citizens (usually minorities) is stopped and searched more often, that group is going to be incorrectly associated with a higher level of criminal behavior than other groups.
A 2016 news article discusses how one law enforcement agency in Hamden, Connecticut, received some troubling data about how its police department compared to others in the state. The data showed that officers in Hamden were stopping minority drivers at rates that were disproportionately higher than stops of white drivers. Hamden was identified as one of the worst towns in the state for racial disparities in traffic stops.
The town’s chief of police made a decision to change policies and tactics. He instructed his officers to focus less on stops for vehicle-related violations that had no effect on safety (having tinted windows or having something hanging from the rearview mirror), and instead focus on violations like speeding and running red lights.
A year after enacting this policy, the department’s data changed dramatically. It had pulled over 25 percent fewer African American drivers, and its rate of defective equipment stops was reduced by more than half.
It should be noted that in many cases, defective equipment stops are often just an excuse to check drivers for things like guns and drugs. And in such cases, white drivers are significantly more likely to be in possession of contraband (yet minority drivers are searched about twice as often).
Police officers have the legal authority to detain and search suspects in a wide range of circumstances. But that doesn’t mean they should fully exercise that authority. If citizens feel harassed by police officers, it will inevitably erode trust between police departments and the communities they have sworn to protect and serve.