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Official Figures from Police Stops Reveal Bias

Photo courtesy Matt Popovich.

While police interaction with Black drivers is universally recognized as more invasive and violent by everyone from comedians and social critics, there were few hard numbers to substantiate the public suspicion. California legislators and residents demanded accountability from police after a chain of officer-involved murders, however, and passed the Racial and Identity Profiling (RIPA) Act of 2015.

The new state law demanded police collect and catalogue data on police stops and interdictions, and it established the Racial and Identify Profiling Advisory Board to count the numbers and compile reports. Opponents of the legislation included law enforcement groups such as the California State Sheriff’s Association, which claimed the information the law required officers to gather during police stops was too burdensome. For years, pro-law enforcement lobbyists helped quell similar police data collection bills by either getting them vetoed or killed in committee. The RIPA law only passed after public outcry over a string of phone footage showcasing police violence.

Now the RIPA numbers from 1.8 million traffic stops have come in, and the data substantiates everything Black communities already knew.

“Black individuals represented a higher proportion of stopped individuals than their relative proportion of the population in both benchmark datasets,” according to the report, which compared the size of the California Black population against police stops recorded by the Statewide Integrated Traffic Records System (SWITRS). Blacks represented 6.3 percent of the state population in 2018, but 15 percent of traffic stops. The numbers may not sound high compared to that of Hispanics, which comprised 39.8 percent of stops, however Hispanics account for 41 percent of the California population. Whites account for 34.7 percent of the population and represented 33.2 percent of traffic stops, which is proportional. Asians, meanwhile, represented almost 12 percent of the population in 2018 but comprised only 5.5 percent of all stops.

The report also noted 9.9 percent of stopped individuals were subject to a person or property search, but police officers searched Black individuals “at a rate 2.9 times the rate at which they searched White individuals (18.7% vs. 6.5%).” And if you’re looking for substantiating evidence to support the heavier search rate for African American drivers, you’ll have to keep looking, because search yield rate analyses showed that when officers searched individuals, contraband or crime evidence was generally found on White individuals at higher rates than individuals from all other groups.

The high stop rate for Black drivers makes even less sense when considering the comparatively incriminating behavior of white individuals who were pulled over. “Enforcement rate” is what happens when a stop results in a citation or arrest, and “when examining only officer-initiated stops with searches, White individuals (35.8%) had higher enforcement rates than all other racial or ethnic groups; Black individuals had the lowest enforcement rates (20.9%),” the report claims.

These racial disparities look even more suspicious when you break the numbers down by city. Twenty-eight percent of all persons stopped by Los Angeles police during the last six months of 2018 were Black, according to the report, even though Black people account for just nine percent of that city’s population. Also, the Black population represents only 5 percent of the total population of the city of San Francisco, but Black people still somehow represent 26 percent of all stops carried out by San Francisco police from July through December of 2018.

All in all, Black people were most likely to have police-issue guns trained upon them, even though police were less likely to find drugs, weapons or illicit possessions in their vehicles.

The numbers are galling, but the people affiliated with RIPA say they are determined to put them to good use. J. Edgar Boyd is pastor of the First African Methodist Episcopal Church of Los Angeles. Boyd, who was appointed to the RIPA board by the Attorney General of California, said the information will doubtlessly help the community revamp the criminal justice system.

“It is the hope within communities of color that the California Department of Justice will take leadership and swiftly influence healthy, unbiased change within California’s Law Enforcement Agencies across the state,” Boyd told The Lighthouse.

Boyd added he’s looking specifically for traffic stop procedural reform, racial and cultural sensitivity training for officers at all levels, and an “urgent attempt to recruit officers and staff to reflect the racial and cultural composition of the populations they serve.”

Boyd said he also hopes the bias-revealing numbers support his call for legislative action to properly fix California’s “unjust money bail system.” Critics like Boyd have complained that the payment of cash as a condition of release in California traps defendants in a cycle of debt, even if they have not been convicted of a crime. Judges, they say, should have greater discretion in deciding who should remain in jail ahead of trial in an effort to eliminate the bail system.


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