A new report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, "Contacts Between Police and the Public, 2005," says that while the number of citizens of all races stopped or searched by law enforcement has dropped since 2002, minorities are still more likely than whites to be searched, arrested, and/or have force used against them.
From the report (PDF format):
• In both 2002 and 2005, white, black, and Hispanic drivers were stopped by police at similar rates, while blacks and Hispanics were more likely than whites to be searched by police.
• Male drivers were 3 times more likely than female drivers to be arrested, and black drivers were twice as likely as white drivers to be arrested.
• In both 2002 and 2005, blacks and Hispanics experienced police use of force at higher rates than whites.
• Blacks (4.4%) and Hispanics (2.3%) were more likely than whites (1.2%) to experience use of force during contact with police in 2005. Blacks accounted for 1 out of 10 contacts with police but 1 out of 4 contacts where force was used.
Further, perceptions about whether contact with police was justified vary by race:
Blacks (82.2%) were less likely than whites (91.6%) to feel the police acted properly during a contact. Racial differences in opinion about police behavior were not found across all types of contacts. No differences were found in the percentages of whites and blacks who felt the police behaved properly when helping with a traffic accident or providing assistance, such as giving directions.
While the majority of stopped drivers felt police had a legitimate reason for stopping them, driver opinion was not consistent across racial/ethnic categories. White (87.6%) and Hispanic drivers (85.1%) were more likely than black drivers (76.8%) to feel the stop was legitimate.
Driver opinion also varied depending on the reason for the traffic stop. A smaller percentage of black drivers stopped because of a vehicle defect (66.5%) or a record check (72.2%) felt they were stopped for a legitimate reason compared to white drivers pulled over for the same reasons (90.5% and 91.8%, respectively).
The authors of the report say findings of racial disparities are not evidence that minorities are treated differently, and "might be explained by countless other factors and circumstances that were not taken into account in the analysis."
The ACLU takes a somewhat different view. Dennis Parker, Director of the ACLU's Racial Justice Project, stated in a recent press release:
"These findings demonstrate clear and significant racial disparities in the way in which motorists are treated once they have been stopped by law enforcement. The report found that blacks and Hispanics were roughly three times as likely to be searched during a traffic stop, blacks were twice as likely to be arrested and blacks were nearly four times as likely to experience the threat or use of force during interactions with the police.
And while the Department of Justice says that the higher rate of searches of blacks and Hispanics is not necessarily the result of racial bias, it begs a critical question: why are blacks and Hispanics subject to searches disproportionately? It's a question that needs to be answered."
There are also questions regarding why the Justice Department does not provide breakdown by race of cases where evidence of a crime was found following a search. The ACLU believes that this would show that many such searches are not justified:
"Moreover, there was a significant figure left out of this report - the racial breakdown of the number of searches that resulted in the discovery of illegal contraband. Previous reports demonstrated that while black and Hispanic drivers were more likely than whites to be searched by law enforcement during traffic stops, they were less likely to be harboring contraband. In 2005 the Justice Department went so far as to try to conceal these numbers. They even demoted the official, Lawrence A. Greenfeld, who compiled them. This report makes no mention of the racial breakdown of the hit rate. It's an eerie silence and the Justice Department needs to explain why this is not in the report."
The press release mentions a letter to U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales in Aug. of 2005 from The Leadership Conference on Civil Rights signed by several prominent civil rights leaders regarding the suppression of the findings:
We are deeply concerned and dismayed by the reported efforts of political appointees in the Department to suppress or downplay these important findings. All of us who care about the fair administration of justice, including law enforcement agencies across the country, rely on the unbiased and apolitical work of BJS. Its reports are the gold standard for analysis of the state of our nation's criminal justice system. Integrity in law enforcement research should be a bedrock principle of the Department's work in this area. Attempts to undermine that integrity should not be tolerated.
Most importantly, the results of this study indicate a pressing need for the Administration to do more to address the persistent problem of racial profiling in America.
As we have argued in the past, racial profiling violates our nation's basic constitutional commitment to equality before the law. Racial profiling is also contrary to effective law enforcement -- whether used as a tool in the war against drugs or the war against terrorism, profiling fuels the perception in minority communities that the criminal justice system is unfair and undermines the trust between the police and the communities they serve.
The recent BJS study confirms that profiling by federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies is widespread, and that, despite the efforts of some states and local law enforcement agencies to address this problem, federal legislation is necessary.
There is no indication if A.G. Gonzales has any recollection of remembering if he received the letter or read it, but this appears to be more evidence that political influence in the Department of Justice is undermining civil rights enforcement.