Traffic stop
Credit: Chris Yarzab/Flickr

One energetic police officer in North Carolina—we don’t know his or her name or police department—has, since 2002, stopped and searched around 1,000 drivers, of whom more than 900 are black. Indeed, a majority of the state’s police officers stop and search black drivers at considerably higher rates than whites. And it isn’t just individual officers: in a majority of the state’s police departments, the search rate for black drivers is higher, often much higher. There are 255 North Carolina cities where officers have conducted at least fifty typical traffic-safety stops of white and black drivers since 2002. In forty-three of those cities, the search disparity was more than two to one.

Suspect Citizens: What 20 Million Traffic Stops Tell Us About Policing and Race
by Frank R. Baumgartner, Derek A. Epp, and Kelsey Shoub
Cambridge University Press, 302 pp.

If this seems all too predictable, you should know this, too: many North Carolina officers and police departments do not stop and search black drivers at higher rates than whites. That, it turns out, is the most significant observation in Suspect Citizens, a fascinating new book by a crack team of political scientists led by Frank Baumgartner, a professor at the University of North Carolina: it is possible to run a successful police department without targeting black people for stops and searches. And not only is it possible, it is common in some places.

We know this because North Carolina, since 2002, has required police departments to report the race of the driver in all police stops. For years, few people paid any attention to the data as it quietly accumulated. The state now holds records on more than twenty-two million stops. Baumgartner and two colleagues, Derek Epp (no relation) and Kelsey Shoub, dug into this data. Their book is based on analysis of North Carolina traffic stops between 2002 and 2016.

The stop records confirm a basic, and now well-known, fact: although drivers of all races and ethnicities are stopped for significant traffic violations like serious speeding, blacks and Hispanics are especially likely to be stopped for minor violations, like a burned-out taillight. Officers use these little, technical violations as a pretext to ask questions, look around the car, and, sometimes, ask the driver for consent to do a search. The tactic is known as an “investigatory stop.” In an earlier book, my colleagues Steven Maynard-Moody and Donald Haider-Markel and I showed that black drivers are subjected to these intrusive experiences at nearly three times the rate of whites. Racial disparities in vehicle searches are greatest in so-called consent-based searches, in which the officer’s legal justification for doing the search is nothing more than the driver’s acquiescence, likely reluctant, to the officer’s request to search.

Using the largest database yet compiled on police stops, Suspect Citizens generally confirms these dismal patterns. The North Carolina records also confirm an even more striking fact, one commonly observed in smaller studies of racial profiling: searches in police stops are almost never successful at achieving their ostensible goal of finding drugs or illegally carried weapons. Nearly nine out of ten searches of both white and black drivers in North Carolina, and more than nine out of ten searches of Hispanics, are what Baumgartner and colleagues call “fruitless”: they yield no seizure and no arrest. And when officers do find something, it’s usually only trivial amounts of drugs, typically a joint or a small bag of marijuana. The North Carolina records reveal only sixteen substantial busts of large quantities of marijuana—sixteen, out of more than twenty million stops.

Cynicism about the police in some quarters is now so great that some people think that racially biased police stops are just a fact of life. What makes Suspect Citizens so interesting is that the North Carolina records reveal that this all-embracing cynicism is not justified. In dozens of North Carolina locales, the police are not stopping and searching blacks at higher rates than whites. What makes the difference? Why are racial disparities in police stops so great in some places but not others?

The most troubling observation in Suspect Citizens is that the discriminatory use of investigatory stops is most common where it is imposed mainly on groups that have little political power. The authors show that as black political power increases across North Carolina cities, the discriminatory use of police stops and searches decreases. Racial disparities are highest where African Americans are a small minority of voters and where there are no African Americans in elective office with authority over the police department. In places where black people hold governing power over the police department, the police are more evenhanded about whom they stop and search.

The authors highlight two key reforms that help to reduce racial disparities in traffic stops: eliminating, or at least radically reducing, the use of investigatory stops; and requiring police officers to obtain the driver’s written agreement before performing a consent-based search (as opposed to the oral consent used in most places). Their comparisons of different North Carolina jurisdictions show that eliminating the use of investigatory stops dramatically reduces disparities in who is stopped and searched and closes the disparity in arrests entirely. Likewise, requiring officers to obtain a signature for a consent-based search reduces the use of these searches and, with them, their discriminatory application. The authors demonstrate this effect by comparing search rates before and after three cities—Fayetteville, Durham, and Chapel Hill—implemented a written-consent requirement. In each case, the number of consent-based searches dropped significantly.

Perhaps the most important thing about Suspect Citizens is its basic observation that having data on police stops can expose typically hidden racial disparities to public view, which in itself can compel reform of the worst abuses. Earlier reports of the research team’s data have already led to the firing of some officers whose extreme disparities in stops were simply not defensible when made public. These reports have put pressure on some cities to restrain abusive practices.

A more depressing implication is how unlikely most jurisdictions are to adopt the sensible reforms the authors suggest. African Americans are a political majority, with governing power over police departments, in very few American cities. In most places, whites have little experience of the highly intrusive police stops and searches so regularly imposed on black people, and so white majorities rarely have any direct incentive to rein in their police forces.

Meanwhile, black political power doesn’t inevitably translate into enlightened policing, as the experience of Baltimore illustrates. And even the few African Americans who live where black majorities do exercise meaningful control over the police sometimes drive through neighboring communities where discriminatory law enforcement is the norm. There is no effective check on this racially disparate jurisdictional patchwork. No national statute meaningfully addresses racially discriminatory policing. The federal courts, led by the conservative Supreme Court, accept and even encourage investigatory stops and consent-based searches as a legitimate crime-fighting tool.

Even the most basic information about racial disparities in police stops is lacking in most places. For all of the debate about racial bias in policing, there’s almost no way to learn even the simplest things about most police departments’ activities, simply because in most of the country, you can’t go to the city website and see whether the cops are stopping blacks at higher rates than whites. You can’t even learn the answer if you ask the police themselves, because most departments don’t gather data on who their officers are stopping. And if they do gather this information, they don’t report it to the public.

North Carolina is one of the few states to require the police to record and report this data. Missouri does, too, and requires its attorney general to provide a simple report of who is stopped and searched, by city. These reports are on the attorney general’s website for all to see. California recently adopted a statewide mandate to report information on the race of people stopped by the police.

Suspect Citizens shows how data on police stops can be used to shine a clear light on racial disparities, and how this can be used to compel reform. The book provides the most compelling case yet for why routine gathering and reporting of data on racial disparities in police stops should be mandatory everywhere.

Charles Epp

Charles Epp is University Distinguished Professor at the School of Public Affairs and Administration at the University of Kansas. He is a coauthor, with Steven Maynard-Moody and Donald Haider-Markel, of Pulled Over: How Police Stops Define Race and Citizenship.