Driving While Black
In the early 1990s, racial profiling by the New Jersey State Police gained national attention as internal police records showed that officers had for years engaged in large-scale racial profiling of motorists along Interstate 95, also known as the New Jersey Turnpike. A 1995 study by John Lamberth, Driving While Black, showed that 35% of motorists stopped on the Turnpike were African American, yet African Americans only made up 13.5% of the area’s population and only 15% of those found speeding on the road; African American drivers were nearly five times more likely than other drivers to be stopped.
These numbers led to a Superior Court finding that the New Jersey officers were engaging in racial profiling. This resulted in the New Jersey State Police being placed under a federal consent decree that lasted more than a decade.28 Yet even more disturbing is the elaborate cover up efforts of the New Jersey State Police. Internal police records released in 2000 showed that leadership in the state police department withheld information from federal civil rights investigators sent in by the Department of Justice.
Many police departments are primarily focused on using traffic stops as a way to gain entry into vehicles and search them. In practice, this means making pretextual traffic stops for technicalities, such as rolling through a stop sign or having a broken taillight, in order to get an opportunity to make contact with the occupants, use manipulative forms of engagement to gain consent to search, and search drivers and their vehicles. Research shows that “driving while black” constitutes a unique series of risks, vulnerabilities, and dangers at the hands of the police that white drivers do not experience in the same way.
- Between 2011-2015, the Metro Nashville Police Department (MNPD) conducted 7.7 times more traffic stops annually than the U.S. national average
- Between 2011-2015, MNPD made more stops of black people than there were black people 16 years old and over living in Davidson County
- Between 2011-2015, MNPD consistently and unnecessarily stopped and searched black drivers in predominantly black, Hispanic, and low-income communities at rates substantially higher than they did white drivers in predominantly middle to upper income communities
- MNPD consent searches are invasive and fail to yield incriminating evidence 88.4% of the time.
- Evidence of unlawful activity is found during searches of white drivers more often than in searches of black and Hispanic drivers
- Nearly 80% of all MNPD traffic stops in 2015 result in a warning, and, in traffic stops including a search of the vehicle or driver, between one-third and half result in a warning, which means hundreds of thousands of drivers are being stopped and searched unnecessarily every year
- Since 2012, Operation Safer Streets (OSS) has resulted in more than 58,000 vehicle stops and 11,000 arrests, the vast majority of which were concentrated in communities of color. More than 90% of OSS arrests were for misdemeanors, often for possession of small amounts of marijuana or driving without a license, and more than 80% of stops yielded no evidence that warranted arrest
The majority of MNPD traffic stops center around high poverty and predominantly black and Hispanic neighborhoods. As a result, drivers in such neighborhoods have a greater chance of being stopped than drivers in more affluent and white neighborhoods. While individual officers’ implicit bias may certainly be a factor in racial profiling, the issue of racial profiling in traffic stops goes beyond individual officers’ racial animus alone.
Metro Nashville police officers regularly intimidate, harass, and unfairly exert their authority over black drivers. Nashville police officers quickly resort to intimidation using a variety of verbal and non-verbal tactics in an effort to exert their authority and garner compliance. Intimidation tactics ranged from officers approaching the car window with their hands on their guns or handcuffs, to threatening to break a window or bring police dogs to the scene, to pointing a gun at the driver, even when the driver did not pose any immediate threat to the officer.
In many cases, officer displays of aggression started or intensified when community members asserted their rights, which indicates officers’ displeasure at having their authority questioned in any way. The community members we interviewed overwhelmingly perceived officers as bastions of potential or actual force. Interviewees reported that officers often hinted at their prowess and their willingness to produce undesirable outcomes, effect arrest, or wield force through intimidating verbal and non-verbal displays. Some of these intimidating displays were symbolic reminders of officer power.
Aggressive tactics by officers result in traumatizing experiences of fear for one’s safety and the safety of one’s family and friends. Black drivers experience anger at being treated unjustly and disrespectfully, frustration derived from being profiled because of one’s race and its assumed correspondence to criminality, and the feeling that police do not “serve and protect” black people like they do white people.
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