Austin police data show Hispanics, blacks more likely to be searched in traffic stops
From the Austin American Statesman
Posted Mar 8, 2019 at 3:01 PMUpdated Mar 11, 2019 at 4:25 PM
Black and Hispanic drivers who were pulled over in traffic stops in Austin last year were more than twice as likely to be searched than their white counterparts, according to the latest racial profiling reportreleased by the Austin Police Department.
Officers searched 6 percent of white drivers pulled over in traffic stops but searched 14 percent of Hispanics drivers and 17 percent of black drivers, according to the 2018 data, which also found that those Hispanic and black drivers searched were only slightly more likely to have contraband than white drivers.
The figures are similar to what has been reported in previous years, including in 2017, when Hispanics also were twice as likely to be searched after being pulled over as whites and black people were three times as likely to be searched, data show.
Of the 12,554 searches that Austin police conducted in 2018, 5,514 were of Hispanic drivers, or 43.9 percent; 3,704 were of white drivers, 29.5 percent; and 3,072 black drivers, 24.5 percent, the report shows. The remaining 2 percent were drivers of other races and ethnicities.
Austin Police Chief Brian Manley said he is not surprised by the numbers, but he acknowledges the sensitivity of the issue. He said his department uses a data-driven approach to help determine where to place more officers and said that can lead to more police encounters in predominantly black and Hispanic neighborhoods.
“We focus limited resources in areas where crime has clustered and where we can have the greatest impact,” Manley said. “What we see in Austin, we see that crime tends to cluster in the less affluent neighborhoods and, for a variety of socioeconomic factors, we know that minority populations are overrepresented in those neighborhoods.”
Hit rates vs. searches
Manley said the more important figure in the racial profiling report is the department’s “hit rate,” or how often officers find contraband when they conduct searches.
These numbers, regardless of race and ethnicity, hover at about 30 percent for whites, blacks and Hispanics, according to the report.
“If we had one group in our community, one ethnicity, that was being searched at or above the levels of others, but we were finding contraband at lower levels, that would show that we are singling them out to be searched,” Manley said. “That would point to issues we are concerned about.”
Contraband was found in 27 percent of searches conducted on whites, 30 percent of searches on Hispanics and 31 percent of searches on blacks, data show.
Alex del Carmen, a state expert on racial profiling who reviewed the Austin police data, said the department’s high volume of contraband found as a result of its searches is better than the national average and signifies good police work.
“It’s not about who gets searched but whether or not the individual deserves to get searched,” del Carmen said. “That’s really the question that has to be asked when contemplating racism — whether or not the officer had the legal justification to search that person. ... If you are engaging in good police work and effective policing and using probable cause as the basis for your searches, you would expect that percentage to be normative or across the board regardless of race or ethnicity.”
When asked why blacks and Hispanics are searched more often even though they are no more likely than whites to have contraband, del Carmen said that would require looking at other factors, like where police are focusing their efforts in the city.
“That’s not going to be answered by virtue of the hit ratios,” he said. “There’s no question that data should continue to be analyzed, and there is a definite opportunity here to expand the analysis to look at this further.”
Manley said the department two years ago put all of its officers through training on fair and impartial policing to help them recognize biases, and it continues to provide ongoing training to ensure racial equity.
“Police departments can do everything they can to negate the opportunity of racism, but, at the end of the day, no agency is ever immune from engaging in racial profiling,” del Carmen said. “There have been and continue to be the case where one and two officers go out and engage in racism. Those issues have to be addressed. ... That’s what we hope from these reports, to continue to monitor the officer’s behaviors.”
But Nelson Linder, president of the Austin chapter of the NAACP, said Austin police have reported similar numbers every year for the past 15 years that show minorities being searched at higher rates, pointing to a problem within the Austin Police Department’s culture.
“It’s a perfect example of institutional racism,” he said. “When you are still racially profiling in 2019, you have to do something very, very differently.”
Drop in stops, searches
White people made up the greatest proportion of people pulled over in 2018, or 47 percent; Hispanics 33 percent; and black people 15 percent, the data show. By comparison, 75 percent of Austin residents are white, of which 48.6 percent identify as white only and not Hispanic or Latino, 35 percent are Hispanic and 8 percent are black, according to U.S. Census data.
Overall, the report found that motor vehicles stops were down 14 percent in the city last year compared with the previous year. In total, Austin police conducted 122,185 traffic stops in 2018 for speeding, illegal turns and other violations, compared with 142,036 stops in 2017, the report says.
Police say the drop was a result of several factors, including the removal of nearly 400 SUVs from the department’s fleet in 2018 because of carbon monoxide exposure concerns, which forced two officers to ride in each patrol car for five months of the year. The report also noted a 10 percent vacancy rate in patrol officers and how the department changed its vacation policy to limit officers’ ability to work overtime on grant-funded traffic enforcement.
Manley said the vacancies had to do with the large numbers of officers who left the force after the city and police failed to reach an agreement on a work contract in December 2017. Since a new agreement was reached in November, the department has been aggressively recruiting candidates to fill those positions, he said.
“It remains a focus because we have seen far too many lives lost in our city to crashes, especially drunk driving crashes,” Manley said.
Along with releasing the numbers of stops and searches, the report also compiled the number of racial profiling complaints made against officers. The complaints dropped significantly last year after the Office of the Police Monitor, which normally takes them, was shuttered when the city failed to renew the police contract.
Four formal and nine informal complaints of racial profiling were made against Austin officers in 2018, compared with 10 formal and 60 informal complaints in 2017, the report finds. None of the complaints filed last year were sustained, meaning none of the investigations found sufficient evidence to show the act occurred or constituted misconduct.
The contract that was finally approved after months of failed negotiations created a new Office of Police Oversight, which is expected to drive more community involvement and interaction and make it easier for people to file complaints against officers.
“If individuals feel like they have been racially profiled, they should report that. That’s the only way we can capture accurate data,” Manley said.
Farah Muscadin, who leads the new police oversight office, declined to comment on the latest racial profiling report, saying she was reviewing the findings with the city’s equity office.
“We will coordinate a response with their team after we have reviewed the report and data,” she said.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to clarify the U.S. Census numbers regarding Austin’s white population. Seventy-five percent identify as white but only 48.6 percent as white and not Hispanic or Latino.