Traffic stops, African-Americans and the drug war
The Connecticut Mirror rightly raises an issue that should be salient: the justice given and denied to African Americans. It highlights the findings of the Racial Profiling Prohibition Project and suggests at least eight Connecticut towns’ police activities deserve closer scrutiny (their words).
Unlike arrest rates, incarceration rates, and parole violation rates, which are highly subject to biased reporting, traffic stop data broken out by race is one of the better ways to evaluate wrongful race-based discrimination. Prior to the stop, the police officer knows nothing about the driver other than sex, skin color, car exterior, and how she or he is driving.
African Americans (the studies here use the term “Black”) are 8 percent of Connecticut’s population. So unless blacks drive remarkably less carefully (doubtful), a very high rate of police stopping black motorists is evidence of racial profiling.. . . or of profiling based on a vehicle’s deficiency, the other factor above.
Here there is more doubt over a traffic stop coming due to race. Blacks in urban areas are more likely to buy cars from small urban dealers, not big suburban auto-malls. These small dealers often provide good value, but might not be as perfect on all levels of road compliance – “Yeah, the front headlight is out and we don’t have a replacement here, but you can take the car away today; you’ll just pay $50 and fix that yourself.”
But a non-working headlight, or tail-light, is cause for a patrolman’s traffic stop. Thus comes a legitimate, non-race-based stop that likely affects urban blacks for more than suburban whites. Now, the worse problem:
The traffic stop then gives cause for the officer to inspect your car. Thus comes the higher likelihood of an arrest for possessing marijuana by the urban black EVEN THOUGH the incidence of suburban whites’ possession may be the same. Remember, the whites are just not getting stopped as often.
The white/black disparity is likely worse for possession of controlled substances in pill form. Whites tend to deal in them more often than blacks. But if they are not getting stopped as often in otherwise “random” traffic stops, whites’ arrest statistics look lower.
There are solutions to both of these that a good governor can implement:
1) for the vehicle compliance infraction, stop but don’t report. Use a warning to the motorist of any color that there is no first report, just a quiet banking of data. It comes with the warning “if you don’t get it fixed in two weeks and are then pulled over, you’ll have a double report that the next officer is OBLIGATED to report.”
2) end the prohibition on marijuana. This needlessly puts cops in contact with African Americans, be they in exacerbated traffic stops or in their homes, who are minding their own business. Recreational marijuana harms nobody else – so among adults, it IS your own business, not the business of state law enforcement.
As governor, I would implore the General Assembly to alter the law, empower our forces to stand up to the feds should the U.S. attorney general try to enforce it. If the General Assembly after three months fails to legalize, I will demand that state police forces cease to enforce laws against recreational, harmless-to-others drugs (that includes peyote). We should fight REAL crime.
In the process, blacks are less apt to be put into the incarceration system. And down the line, the few policemen who might have racist have less evidence showing higher rates of crime, and the whole public has a “we are one” attitude.
Mark Stewart Greenstein is a candidate for Connecticut Governor and co-founder of the Americans for Minimal Government Party (AMiGo).