One in every 10 American drivers was pulled over for a traffic violation in 2011, according to a Justice Department report released last year. As The Washington Post reports this week, traffic stops for minor infractions such as speeding or equipment violations are increasingly used as a pretext for officers to seize cash from drivers. So it's worth asking: Who's getting pulled over, and for what?
The Justice Department statistics, based on the Police-Public Contact Survey, show that "relatively more black drivers (12.8%) than white (9.8%) and Hispanic (10.4%) drivers were pulled over in a traffic stop during their most recent contact with police." Or, to frame it another way: A black driver is about 31 percent more likely to be pulled over than a white driver, or about 23 percent more likely than a Hispanic driver. "Driving while black" is, indeed, a measurable phenomenon.
It's worth noting, however, that American Indian drivers are even more likely to be pulled over (15 percent). And since these are only national-level figures, rates are likely to be higher or lower depending on local law enforcement practices.
People of different races get pulled over for different reasons. While speeding is the most common reason for a traffic stop among all races, white people (50.1 percent) are more likely to get pulled over for speeding than blacks (37.7 percent) or Hispanics (39.2 percent). Relative to other races, blacks are more likely to get pulled over for vehicle defects or record checks. Perhaps most troubling from a civil liberties perspective, nearly five percent of blacks weren't given any reason for why they were stopped, compared with 2.6 percent of whites and 3.3 percent of Hispanics.
White drivers were significantly less likely to be searched than black or Hispanic drivers. This comports with the Post's investigation, which suggests that most of the drivers subject to searches and cash seizures are minorities.
Perhaps not surprisingly, there were racial differences in the perceived fairness of traffic stops. The survey showed that 67.5 percent of black motorists stopped by police said the reason for the stop was legitimate, compared with 73.6 percent of Hispanics and 83.6 percent of whites. In general, people of all races were more likely to say the stop was legitimate when the officer who pulled them over was of the same race.
Overall, these numbers shed some light on how black and white communities can have starkly different views of the law enforcement agencies that serve them. Black drivers are 31 percent more likely to be pulled over than whites; they are more than twice as likely to be subject to police searches as white drivers; and they are nearly twice as likely to not be given any reason for the traffic stop, period. These numbers undergird much of the racial differences in responses to events like last month's shooting and protests in Ferguson, Mo.