Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Annual article

The release of the 2012 Traffic Stop report by the Nebraska Commission on Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice (AKA "the Crime Commission") spawned the annual article on the racial disparity in traffic stops in Lincoln.  I am intimately familiar with these data, and have closely followed our reports since 2002, when the reporting process became law.

The data are virtually unchanged over the years. The headline finding every year has been that in Lincoln and Omaha, black motorists are stopped at a rate significantly greater than population data would predict.  We do not know why, and the collection of these data by the State does not even remotely answer the questions.  I suspect, based on my own analysis of traffic citations, that income is a major factor--though not the only one.  The racial disparity in speeding tickets is virtually nil, yet the racial disparity in expired plates, misdemeanor arrest warrants, suspended drivers, uninsured motorists, and improperly registered vehicles is huge.  These are violations closely related to one's ability to fork over the cash needed for fines, insurance premiums, sales tax, wheel tax, motor vehicle fees, SR22 filings, license reinstatement fees, and the like.

When I did my own research into traffic tickets in Lincoln several years ago, I discovered that when you controlled for the age of the vehicle (perhaps a surrogate for income), racial disparity virtually evaporated. At any rate, I do not propose to know what portion of the disparity is attributable to various potential sources, including bias--whether conscious or unconscious--by police officers. Most importantly, I acknowledge the possibility and likelihood of multiple sources, including institutional practices by agencies that tend to have a disparate impact, with scant or no justification.

Disparity in traffic stops seems somewhat inconsequential compared to the racial disparity in income, educational attainment, employment, incarceration, drop out rates, crime victimization, and even life expectancy in the United States. Think about this: in Nebraska, a black citizen is 18 times more likely to be the victim of a homicide than a white resident.  My heavens.  Should we not all be shocked by this, and should we not all be committed to doing whatever we can, in our own way, to rectify this horrible reality?

To me, the important thing is for police officers and managers to understand these data, to think about this issue, and to commit themselves to doing their best to treat everyone fairly without regard to race. That's what I teach, and that is what I aspire to practice. My opinions on issues of race and racial profiling are not too hard to discern.

9 comments:

Anonymous said...

Director,
Have you broken down the tickets written by members of the Police force by race? IOW do the percentages of tickets written by LPD officers vary significantly in the percentage of tickets given to offenders of a RACE different than that of the officer?

Pardon me if I sound confused but I am still waiting for my first cup of coffee this morning. However I think you get the gist of what I am asking.

Certified Gun Nut.

Steve said...

I seem to recall quite some time ago that LPD was making a concious effort to hire more minorities and women. I know there are quite a number of women officers these days, but it appears to me that racial makeup of the force is still pretty pale. Can you divulge any information on that aspect? How does it compare to population figures in the area, for example?

A disparity there could certainly be a factor, again, whether concious or unconcious, in the traffic stop disparities.

Anonymous said...

"in Nebraska, a black citizen is 18 times more likely to be the victim of a homicide than a white resident. My heavens. Should we not all be shocked by this, and should we not all be committed to doing whatever we can, in our own way, to rectify this horrible reality?"

Perhaps the first step should be taken by those doing almost all of those murders of blacks - other young black males. Preach to those responsible. In any case, a large majority of poor folks never commit any crimes, but a small minority of poor folks (and some not so poor folks) commit a LOT of crimes.

Convince legislators (and you're in a fine position to do this) to stop kicking loose violent criminals, especially repeat violent offenders.

Anonymous said...

Prosecutors, not Legislators are the ones kicking loose violent criminals. There are plenty of laws and some of the pentalties are enhanced every year.

Anonymous said...

No, the legislators are the ones that can change the laws that currently let prosecutors cut ridiculous plea-deals to repeat violent offenders, change the laws that let judges hand out wrist-slaps to repeat violent offenders, and the laws that let (and sometimes force) parole boards to release violent offenders after serving only half of whatever sentence they were given.

Instead of "good time", do it like a military brig; they serve the entire sentence - plus extra time for every screw-up they have. There's your carrot-and-stick incentive, not "good time". It's actually a cheaper deal for the taxpayers to keep violent career criminals locked up for as long as the law allows, instead of kicking them loose just to free up cell space.

Steve said...

I think 9:52 and 11:43 are both right to some extent. Prosecutors choose to drop charges and/or plea bargain often times for various reasons (not all good in my mind), and legislators decide sentences and other parameters of jail time that force early releases or tie the hands of judges and prosecutors as to what they can do with certain criminals.

I would argue that, indeed, violent criminals need to be kept off the streets longer than they usually are, especially when they are repeat offenders. I would also argue that many non-violent criminals are given sentences that don't adequately punish their crimes, nor do they provide a deterrent to anyone. When white collar criminals can steal millions and get off with probation while the guy who takes a six pack from the local git and split goes to jail for a couple of years, something is wrong with the system. Most all non-violent crime results in increased costs for society, even those not the direct victims. Shoplifting results in higher costs for all of us as retailers have to recoup their losses somehow. Car thefts and vandalism increase the cost of our car and homeowner insurance. People who fail to register their vehicles make the rest of us pay more to keep up the roads. The punishment needs to be severe enough to act as a deterrent if it is to do any good at all. Even if some refuse to be deterred by severe penalties, keeping them in jail longer once they are caught will reduce their repeat offenses.

Anonymous said...

I bet you can scrape up stats showing that low-income drivers are more likely to be traffic-stopped than are drivers of middle and high income. Then then there would be the knee-jerk cries of the police "targeting the poor" and engaging in "economic profiling". Never mind that low-income drivers are far more likely to have expired tags, no plates, or a visible violation (brake light burned out, cracked windshield, etc) than are drivers with moderate and high incomes.

Anonymous said...

Totally off topic but this is a very sad day for many of us baby boomers. Annette Funicello passed away. Has anyone ever made a set of mouse ears look any better? R.I.P Annette. The world is definitely a better place because you were with us.

Gun Nut and a life long fan of Annette.

Anonymous said...

It would be interesting to see how the disparity in numbers relates to shift, areas of operation, and years of service on the department. Younger officers who are extremely more energetic seem to wish to work in busier more dynamic parts of the city. Veteran officers that like to work days and/or slower parts of the city do that for a reason; one of those reasons is the lack of traffic they like to run. Numbers are a funny dance. We can make them do what they want when we want. All you need is a little creativity.