UTEP Researchers Study Racial Bias in Police Stops

University of Texas at El Paso
5-Jun-2017 3:05 PM EDT, by University of Texas at El Paso

Newswise — When a 2015 newspaper analysis of traffic-stop data by the San Jose Police Department (SJPD) in San Jose, California, revealed that African-Americans and Latinos were more likely to be stopped, searched or temporarily detained than the rest of the city’s population, police department officials pledged to shine a light on the matter.

In 2016, the SJPD partnered with the Center for Law and Human Behavior (CLHB) at The University of Texas at El Paso to examine the correlation between individuals’ race/ethnicity and vehicle/pedestrian stop outcomes.

For nearly a year, CLHB researchers analyzed data from 83,381 reports of limited detention actions, or traffic and pedestrian stops, by San Jose police officers from September 2013 to March 2016. They paid close attention to whether the stop ended with someone being arrested, handcuffed or ordered to sit on a curb.

While race did influence how often people were stopped and questioned by police, the data analysis revealed fewer racial disparities than expected for a community as diverse as San Jose.

“The good news is SJPD is not a department in crisis,” said San Jose Police Chief Eddie Garcia in a press release issued by the SJPD.

Since 2010, UTEP’s CLHB has been facilitating interdisciplinary research on social science and law-related issues by nationally recognized experts in social, behavioral, legal and criminal justice-related areas. Previous studies have focused on police use of force, border security, racial bias and offenders with mental illness.

In addition to reviewing and auditing all of the SJPD’s stop data, researchers also traveled to San Jose to conduct focus groups and participate in officer ridealongs.

“This was an issue of community concern in the city of San Jose, which prompted the police department to reach out to the Center for Law and Human Behavior at UTEP to analyze their data,” said Michael R. Smith, J.D., Ph.D., the center’s executive director and the study’s lead researcher. “We did not uncover large or widespread disparities or anything to suggest that there’s a widespread cultural problem in the San Jose Police Department.”

Smith, a nationally recognized expert on racial profiling, has previously participated in traffic stop data analysis in Los Angeles, California; Miami-Dade County, Florida; Richmond, Virginia; and with state highway patrol agencies in Washington and Arizona. He also contributed to a traffic stop and use of force analysis done by the United States Department of Justice in San Francisco, California.

“By shining a light on the stop practices of the police agency, you can help the police department be more fair and equitable and ensure that they’re adhering to the constitution when they’re stopping citizens,” Smith said.

The UTEP study is one of many initiatives the SJPD has undertaken to earn the trust of the citizens of San Jose and achieve better community safety, Police Chief Eddie Garcia said.

“The first step in any effort to improve is self-assessment, and this report provides a critical benchmark of existing stop practices that will help us make more progress,” he said.

According to vehicle stop findings, black citizens were nine times more likely and Hispanic citizens were 3.4 times more likely to experience a field interview following a vehicle stop as compared to white citizens. But black citizens were less likely to be issued a traffic citation compared to white citizens.

The study also found that Hispanic citizens were 2.4 times more likely than white citizens to be handcuffed during a pedestrian stop, but less likely than white citizens to have a police report written about it.

Black pedestrians also were stopped less often than white pedestrians.

Smith collaborated with Jeff Rojek, Ph.D., the CLHB’s associate director; Robert Tillyer, Ph.D., associate dean of the College of Public Policy at The University of Texas at San Antonio; and Caleb Lloyd, a former UTEP psychology assistant professor.

Ariel Stone, a research assistant on the project, helped to code two years’ worth of data for the researchers to analyze.

Stone, a general psychology doctoral student, said she wasn’t aware of the SJPD’s disparities in vehicle/pedestrian stops until she joined the project.

“I had never been a part of a project involving collaboration with law enforcement,” said Stone, who plans to pursue a career as a researcher investigating the predictors of violent crime. “I believe that sort of collaboration will be incredibly relevant to my future research, and Dr. Smith provided an excellent model of how to navigate the challenges of communicating our research goals and our findings to professionals who were not necessarily research-oriented.”

As part of the report, researchers recommended policies, practices and training to reduce any potential police bias, such as identifying and quickly addressing racially disparate stop patterns by individual officers. The report noted that racial disparities in stops often are driven by the practice of a relatively small number of officers in the department.

Researchers also suggested that the department adopt evidence-based training to improve police-citizen interactions and reduce the influence of discriminatory factors, such as race and ethnicity, in traffic and pedestrian stops.

“I am proud of the professionalism of the men and woman of this department and the tremendous job they do daily,” Garcia said. “However, I also recognize that we are not perfect. We’ll never stop striving for fairness in the way we serve and protect our residents. Regardless of these findings, I recognize that there is a level of distrust of police in parts of our community, and our entire department must always keep working to increase trust and improve perceptions of police legitimacy.”

To read the full study, click here.