Inside 100 million police traffic stops: New evidence of racial bias

Three years ago, an unmarked police car tailed Richard Jackson into an alley behind his home on Chicago’s West Side and pulled him over. Jackson, a black Navy veteran, had become used to being stopped by police for what he believed was no reason since returning to Illinois from the military in 2012.

But this time was different. After an officer ran his driver’s license, then said he was free to go, Jackson pointedly asked what he had done wrong. The officer, who is white, said Jackson had cut him off, which Jackson denied. The officer then issued Jackson citations for failing to yield at a left turn and stop sign, which Jackson also denied.

Although the officer did not allude to Jackson’s race, the veteran believed that was why he was stopped. He successfully fought the two citations and filed a complaint with the Chicago police.

Image: Richard Jackson
Richard Jackson filed a complaint after a 2016 traffic stop.Richard Jackson

“With this racial profiling — I’m not just going to roll over,” Jackson, 36, said.

The Chicago police did not respond to a request for comment.

Jackson’s encounter with the Chicago police reflects the experiences of people of color across the country, who describe being stopped and searched by officers without a good reason. Like Jackson, many believe their race played a role.

Now, Stanford University researchers have compiled the most comprehensive evidence to date suggesting there is a pattern of racial disparities in traffic stops. The researchers provided NBC News with the traffic-stop data — the largest such dataset ever collected — which points to pervasive inequality in how police decide to stop and search white and minority drivers.

Using information obtained through public record requests, the Stanford Open Policing Project examined almost 100 million traffic stops conducted from 2011 to 2017 across 21 state patrol agencies, including California, Illinois, New York and Texas, and 29 municipal police departments, including New Orleans, Philadelphia, San Francisco and St. Paul, Minnesota.

The results show that police stopped and searched black and Latino drivers on the basis of less evidence than used in stopping white drivers, who are searched less often but are more likely to be found with illegal items. The study does not set out to conclude whether officers knowingly engaged in racial discrimination, but uses a more nuanced analysis of traffic stop data to infer that race is a factor when people are pulled over — and that it’s occuring across the country.

“Because of this analysis, we’re able to get to that anecdotal story to say this is really happening,” said Sharad Goel, an assistant professor in management science and engineering at Stanford and a co-author of the study.

Police pull over about 20 million drivers across the United States each year, according to researchers. And while the extreme cases grab the spotlight, such as the fatal police shootings after traffic stops of Walter Scott in South Carolina, Samuel DuBose in Cincinnati and Philando Castile in suburban Minneapolis — all black men — most end without anyone getting hurt. Still, for drivers of color who are stopped by police, the suspicion that racial bias played a role can linger.