In subjective encounters between police officers and drivers in Massachusetts, the Boston Globe reports, the difference between a costly ticket and a pain-free warning is closely linked with the race, sex, and age of the driver. On city boulevards and rural lanes, whites are far more likely than minorities to receive written warnings instead of tickets when stopped for identical traffic offenses, found a Globe study of newly released state records. Women, especially young women, get breaks that aren’t afforded to men. The price tag for this unequal treatment amounts to an estimated $25 million a year in traffic fines and higher insurance premiums.
In Massachusetts, the most routine police use of discretion – writing a ticket or a warning – points to a subtler side effect: the economic impact on minorities and men, who are hit with fines and insurance surcharges that others avoid.
Statewide, when local police cited drivers for speeding 45 m.p.h. in a 30 m.p.h. zone, the most common offense, whites drove away with a ticket 31 percent of the time, while 49 percent of minorities received a ticket. The figures are based on an analysis of 166,000 tickets and warnings from every police department in the state in a two-month period, April and May of 2001. These were the only months for which the state collected all warnings as part of a test for profiling. The records reveal a tiered system of ticketing. Local police allow white women to drive faster without penalty, while reserving the harshest treatment for minority men. When drivers went 45 m.p.h. in a 30 m.p.h. zone, white women were ticketed 28 percent of the time in the two sample months; white men, 34 percent; minority women, 44 percent; and minority men, 52 percent.
The striking exception to this pattern was the Massachusetts State Police. The records show that troopers gave almost exactly equal treatment to all drivers, regardless of race, sex, or age. The chief law enforcement officer in the state, Edward A. Flynn, said the Globe’s findings should send a wake-up call to every police chief. “I bet an awful lot of cops, if they looked at their own data, would be personally shocked that they had produced these statistics,” said Flynn, the secretary of public safety.
In the second part of its “Speed Trap” series, the Globe reports that when a Massachusetts officer opens a citation book, writing a ticket or a warning is basically a flip of a coin. Police warned fully half of the drivers who were cited for violating a traffic law – a rate higher than in other states that have tallied warnings.
A driver’s true odds of catching a break vary wildly from town to town, and from officer to officer. While the Globe found dozens of drivers who were warned for speeding more than 30 miles per hour over the limit, dozens of others were ticketed for speeding by just 1, 2, or 3 miles per hour.
Some communities ticketed almost all speeders cited; some, next to none. In Chelsea, 87 percent of speeders were ticketed during the two-month study period; in neighboring Everett, only 25 percent were ticketed.