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.