The Risks of ‘Driving While Black’

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Photo by Evergreen2005 via Flickr

An analysis of data collected by local police departments on millions of traffic stops over the last several years, conducted by ABC News in collaboration with ABC-owned stations, shows that Black drivers or pedestrians were more likely to be stopped by police than white drivers or pedestrians in several major U.S. cities, after accounting for the demographics of the cities and counties those police departments serve.

The data collected by police departments differ from city to city, but ABC News examined multiple years of data in almost every city.

Experts stress that racial disparities alone cannot prove racial bias. Rather, the data analysis simply shows the often vast differences in how often members of a city’s police force interact with Black people compared to white people in the same city.

In almost every major city examined, the analysis shows at least some disparity in traffic stops.

In some cities, those disparities were significant. In Minneapolis, for example, where George Floyd was killed at the hands of the police officers earlier this year, Black drivers were five times more likely to be stopped by police than white drivers.

In Chicago and San Francisco, Black drivers were four times more likely to be stopped. And in Philadelphia and Los Angeles, Black drivers were about three times more likely to be stopped.

In cities where ABC News was able to examine police stops of pedestrians, the disparities were often even higher. In Chicago, Black pedestrians are nine times more likely to be stopped by police than white pedestrians.

In New York City, Black pedestrians are eight times more likely to be stopped. And in San Francisco, Black pedestrians are seven times more likely to be stopped.

The racial disparities in the data are not limited to the traffic stops themselves. In all nine cities where search conduct data was available, an ABC News analysis found that Black Americans are more likely to be searched during stops than white Americans.

And in four out of the six cities where search results data was available—Philadelphia; Chicago; Fresno, California; and San Francisco —Black Americans who were stopped were less likely to be found possessing contraband than white Americans.

In only two out of the 12 cities examined by ABC News—Louisville and Houston—Black drivers were as likely as white drivers to be stopped by the police. But a closer look at the data shows that, even in those cities, Black drivers were subject to more scrutiny than their white counterparts.

In Houston, Black drivers were three times as likely as white Americans to be searched after being stopped by police. In Louisville, Black drivers were more likely to be stopped for suspected violations that turned out to not be serious enough to lead officers to issue the driver a citation.

According to Joanna Weiss, the co-founder and co-director of the nonprofit advocacy group Fines and Fees Justice Center, the consequences of these racial disparities in traffic stops ripple throughout the criminal justice system. In most states, she said, the failure to pay fines and fees associated with traffic violations can result in the suspensions of driver’s licenses, creating what she called “an impossible choice” for many Americans.

“Once their license is suspended, you either stop driving, in which case you can’t access work, you can’t access childcare, you can’t access healthcare, you can’t access any of your basic necessities, or you take the risk and continue to drive,” Weiss told ABC News.

“The next time he’s pulled over, now [it is] a misdemeanor charge, because driving on a suspended is a misdemeanor in every jurisdiction. That comes with additional fines and fees. It comes with possible jail time as well. So this is how we take somebody, just on the basis of their poverty, and induct them into the criminal justice system.”

Frank Baumgartner, a professor of the political science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the coauthor of “Suspect Citizens: What 20 Million Tell Us About Policing and Race,” said the racial disparities in traffic stops fuel a sense of mistrust among law enforcement and the people they are meant to serve.

He recommended a shift to a less counterproductive policing strategy.

“Stop using the traffic code as an excuse to go on a fishing expedition,” Baumgartner said.

“Make sure that the roads are safe, but don’t use the traffic code and the vehicle code as an excuse to fight the war on crime because we have to recognize that the vast majority of people who are pulled over, are searched, potentially humiliated, are going to be innocent.”

The Tragedy of Philando Castile

 Philando Castile, a 32-year-old Black man, was pulled over while driving with his girlfriend and her 4-year-old daughter in Falcon Heights, Minnesota, outside of St. Paul, on the night of July 6, 2016.

It was far from his first encounter with the local police.

Between 2002 and 2016, Castile was stopped 52 times, according to a complaint later filed by the American Civil Liberties Union, resulting in 86 minor traffic offenses. Although most of the charges were ultimately dismissed, Castile, a school cafeteria supervisor, was assessed a total of $6,588 in fines and fees.

In an interview with ABC News, Castile’s uncle Clarence told Chief Justice Correspondent Pierre Thomas that he was not only offended by the stops “because it definitely means he was profiled,” but also concerned for his nephew’s well-being.

“Driving while Black and dealing with law enforcement,” Clarence said, “is one of the most serious and deadly encounters that could happen to a person of color these days.”

Castile’s final traffic stop turned tragic in less than a minute. Officer Jeronimo Yanez made the decision to pull over Castile because, as he said on the police scanner, he and his girlfriend “just look[ed] like people who were involved in a robbery.”

After a brief exchange, in which Castile told Yanez that he had a firearm in the vehicle and Yanez told Castile not to reach for it, Yanez opened fire, hitting Castile five times.

Castile died of his wounds at a nearby hospital. Yanez was later acquitted on charges of second-degree manslaughter and dangerous discharge of a firearm, though he was ultimately dismissed from the police department.

But for many Black Americans, the killing—and the dozens of encounters that preceded it—was further proof that the criminal justice system disproportionately ensnares and endangers Black drivers.

“When you’re driving down a street, and those blue and red cherries come on behind you, you all of a sudden get a tingle, your heart starts to race, even when you know you’ve done nothing,” Clarence said.

“It’s just the sheer fear.”

 This is an abridged version of a report aired this week as part of “Turning Point,” a month-long series by ABC News examining the racial reckoning sweeping the United States. Reporters included Pete Madden, a 2020 John Jay Justice Reporting Fellow. Other staffers working on the story were Pierre Thomas, Yun Choi and Jasmine Brown. To download the full story and the video version, please click here

One thought on “The Risks of ‘Driving While Black’

  1. Of course the really important question that’s not answered is why were these drivers and pedestrians stopped.

    What caused the need for a search? Was a ticket issued?

    As for the “impossible choice” noted here, an idea: Don’t drive in such a manner as to get ticketed. If you do, pay your ticket. If you don’t pay, and you continue to drive, who’s fault is that, really?

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