Over the past five years, Hispanic motorists stopped by Texas Department of Public Safety troopers were 33 percent more likely to be searched than white drivers. Yet those inspections were less likely to result in the discovery of drugs, weapons or illegal currency than the searches performed on white drivers.
During the same period, troopers discovered contraband on African-American men searched during traffic stops at slightly higher rates than white men. Yet a black man pulled over by the Texas state police was also more than twice as likely to be searched as a white man.
The disparities were revealed in an American-Statesman analysis of 15 million records representing every DPS traffic stop between the beginning of 2009 and July 2015. The examination represents the most detailed picture yet of the intersection of race and traffic stops performed statewide by Texas’ largest law enforcement agency.
For more than a decade, DPS reports have said troopers treat motorists of different races equally, according to agency reviews of traffic stop data. But after the Statesman presented its findings to DPS, a spokesman said late last week that the agency would hire a contractor to review the way DPS officials collect and analyze traffic stop data.
“Because this is such an important issue, DPS will be seeking to enter into a contract with third-party experts to review the department’s traffic stop data collection and analyses to determine if there are any recommendations for improving those efforts,” DPS spokesman Tom Vinger said.
Proving racial bias in policing is a complex calculation. Experts in the subject disagree over the numbers that matter most and caution that findings can be interpreted in multiple ways.
The newspaper’s examination also showed that in some areas DPS’ performance compares favorably to other departments. The agency’s search rates of all drivers have dropped significantly in recent years. They are also relatively low compared to some agencies. In Missouri, home of an incendiary debate on race and policing following Michael Brown’s 2014 shooting death in Ferguson, law enforcement officers statewide searched black motorists at nearly triple DPS’ rate.
Yet three leading experts consulted by the Statesman said the newspaper’s analysis also identified red flags that they said at the least merited further scrutiny.
Alex del Carmen, who as executive director of Tarleton State University’s School of Criminology, Criminal Justice and Strategic Studies also trains Texas police chiefs how to measure and mitigate racial profiling, said much of DPS’ traffic stop data was so poorly kept that it was difficult to analyze. Over the past five years, for example, the Statesman discovered troopers performed searches on nearly 20,000 motorists whose race was left unidentified.
A review of the names shows that most appear to be Hispanic, suggesting the agency’s reported search rates of Latino motorists are likely an undercount. “If the purpose of the law was to utilize law enforcement agencies’ data to make definitive statements on racial profiling trends, the fact that the data in this case is flawed and filled with errors, it makes it virtually impossible,” Del Carmen said.
Still, he added that the search-and-find rates for Hispanics was troubling. “Why is it that despite the thousands of Hispanics searched as a result of a stop, only 1 out of 4 searches resulted in contraband?” he said after reviewing the Statesman’s analysis. “I think the findings are significant and lend themselves to a careful and independent review of the data collected by DPS regarding Hispanics.”
Another academic expert agreed the relatively high search rates of Hispanics, combined with low rates of contraband discovery, indicates disparate treatment of Latino drivers. “Or, to put it more bluntly, they are searching a higher percentage of Hispanics just because they appear to be Hispanic,” said Charles Epp, a University of Kansas professor and the author of “Pulled Over: How Police Stops Define Race and Citizenship.”
Vinger said the agency “has a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to racial profiling, and troopers are held to the highest standards of conduct. All allegations of racial profiling are immediately and thoroughly investigated.” He noted the agency has received only 40 citizen complaints of alleged racial profiling since 2010, and that none were sustained.
DPS under scrutiny
The Texas Department of Public Safety’s treatment of minority drivers has come under intensified scrutiny since July, when a trooper stopped Sandra Bland for a minor traffic infraction in Waller County, outside of Houston. Bland, who was arrested after the stop escalated into a physical confrontation captured on the officer’s dashboard camera, was found hanged in her jail cell three days later. While authorities classified her death as a suicide, Bland’s family and supporters say the trooper turned a routine stop into an unnecessary arrest.
A month ago, the agency was criticized again in a legislative hearing for how it self-reported its treatment of motorists of different races. State law requires police agencies to report traffic stop data by race, and over the past decade DPS has produced annual summaries the agency claimed proved a driver’s skin color played no role in how troopers treated him or her.
But those who study profiling said DPS’ method of reaching those conclusions — by comparing its numbers to statewide population figures — was hopelessly inaccurate because it didn’t account for regional population variations, out-of-state drivers or differences in vehicle ownership patterns among races and ethnicities. It also failed to adequately detail how drivers are treated after stops — a more significant barometer because police say they typically don’t know the race of motorists before pulling them over.
“We find that the DPS has consistently misinterpreted statistics showing the racial and ethnic breakdowns of the number of Texas drivers who have been subject to traffic stops in a manner that is highly misleading,” an analysis conducted by academics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the University of Texas concluded in a November report discussed at the hearing.
“It obfuscates the true disparity,” added state Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston. He said he planned to introduce legislation requiring the agency to produce a more comprehensive and statistically valid report on how often DPS searches, cites and arrests motorists after stops.
Proving bias difficult
In 2001, the Legislature passed a law requiring law enforcement agencies to report statistics breaking out the race of people stopped, as well as basic search information. Now maintained by the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement, the data in many ways is a bare outline of the analysis necessary to produce meaningful conclusions on racial bias in policing, researchers say.
Still, over the years, academics and criminal justice advocates have attempted to gauge the disparate racial treatment of suspects at the hands of Texas law enforcement departments. In the mid-2000s, the left-leaning Texas Criminal Justice Coalition produced several reports suggesting many of the state’s police agencies — including DPS — were treating black and Hispanic drivers less favorably than white motorists.
One found that in 2003 most law enforcement departments performed so-called consent searches — when police use their discretion instead of an identified probable cause to decide to conduct a search — on minorities more often. Another concluded many police departments in the state searched minorities at greater rates, even while searches of blacks and Hispanics tended to yield less contraband.
More recent analyses have uncovered additional troubling numbers. In September, The Texas Tribune reported that even while the number of tickets issued by DPS had plummeted in recent years, the percentage issued to Hispanic motorists had doubled over the same period. And KXAN revealed the agency had mislabeled hundreds of thousands of stopped Hispanic drivers as white, suggesting a dramatic undercount of Latino traffic stops.
Last month, the analysis of DPS traffic stops conducted by the North Carolina and Texas academics determined that DPS troopers were more likely to let white motorists off with only a warning rather than a ticket compared to black drivers. “Whites generally enjoy a 4 to 8 percent increased likelihood compared to blacks of the relatively ‘good news’ of a warning after a traffic stop, rather than a citation,” the report concluded.
While such numbers seem damning, racial profiling experts stress that proving bias is deceptively difficult, and results can be misconstrued. Racial minorities as a group tend to be economically less well-off, for example, meaning their cars may have more defects that could cause police to pull them over more frequently. For similar reasons, some studies have shown that Hispanic drivers as a group drive more often without insurance or a valid license — offenses for which police may be less likely to give a warning instead of a ticket.
Still, advocates say basic policy changes can help level out some of the number gaps. Consent searches in particular have come under fire from critics who say they often are less voluntary than the term would imply, and easily abused by police officers who merely want to harass or inconvenience suspects.
In several North Carolina cities, high numbers of consent searches prompted officials to adopt written consent forms, which spell out motorists’ constitutional right to refuse a search, said University of North Carolina professor Frank Baumgartner, who also led the November DPS study. After the forms were introduced in Fayetteville, consent searches dropped by 90 percent; in Durham, the searches also fell — although the number of probable cause searches increased sharply.
The Texas Legislature passed a similar law in 2005, requiring police to obtain written or recorded permission from motorists prior to a consent search. But then-Gov. Rick Perry vetoed it as unnecessary. While he recommended the Legislature study the issue further, that wasn’t done.
The Statesman analysis shows that about half of DPS’ searches of motorists between 2009 and July 2015 were discretionary, although the rate has declined in recent years. Unlike previous analyses, the Statesman also examined DPS discretionary stops by gender and found the highest rates by far were performed on black and Hispanic men.
For African-American men, who had the highest overall consent search rates, the odds a trooper found contraband were nearly the same as for a white man — about one-third of the time. Latino males were the next most likely to have a consent search performed on them. Yet the odds of a trooper finding contraband were more than 40 percent lower than for white male drivers.
In fact, more than 85 percent of the Hispanic men DPS subjected to the discretionary searches had no contraband. Overall, three out of four times troopers conducted a consent search, records show they found nothing.
Raylan Sims was driving north on Interstate 35 near Braker Lane last February when a Texas Department of Public Safety trooper stopped him for going 84 in the 70 mph zone. “I pulled over to the left, which I shouldn’t have done,” he recalled.
When the trooper ordered the 21-year-old out of the car, Sims said he quickly complied. Agency records show the trooper then asked if he could perform a search — although that’s not how Sims, who is African-American, recalled it.
“No, he didn’t ask my permission,” he said, adding the trooper also pushed him to his knees. “You could tell he was looking for something.” The trooper found nothing illegal. Sims was ticketed for speeding — and warned about following too closely and not reporting his change of address — and sent on his way.
How we did it
The American-Statesman obtained individual traffic stop data from the Texas Department of Public Safety from the beginning of 2009 through July 2015 — more than 15 million records in several files — and analyzed stops by race, gender, the type of stop and if contraband was found.
What we reported
Following Sandra Bland’s death this summer, the American-Statesman reported that Texas Department of Public Safety troopers were slightly more likely to let off white motorists in Waller County with a warning. The Statesman later reported on 2013 traffic stop data showing DPS troopers statewide were more likely to search black motorists; and, in November, how experts concluded the agency was using a flawed method to measure racial disparities during stops.