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(Last updated 2/3/03)

 

This story embargoed for release until February 10, 2003 to concur with publication in the journal Criminology.)

DRIVING WHILE BLACK: STUDY SHOWS MINORITIES MORE LIKELY TO QUESTION WHY POLICE STOPPED THEM, HOW THEY WERE TREATED

COLUMBUS, Ohio – African Americans who are stopped for traffic violations are less likely than whites to believe the police had a legitimate reason to stop them, and more likely to believe they were mistreated, according to a new national study.

In addition, black men are 35 percent more likely than white men to report being stopped by police for a traffic violation. There was no difference between black women and white women in reported stops.

Richard Lundman
Robert Kaufman

The study is one of few to look at the “driving while black” phenomenon on a national scale, and to examine citizen rather than police reports.

The results show there is a real issue concerning whether police target blacks and other minorities for traffic stops and whether minorities are treated differently by police, said Richard Lundman, co-author of the study and professor of sociology at Ohio State University.

“The implications of the patterns we found are troubling, regardless of whether they result from police actions, the perceptions of minority citizens, or perhaps more likely, from both,” Lundman said.

Lundman conducted the study with Robert Kaufman, also a professor of sociology at Ohio State. Their results will appear in the February 2003 issue of the journal Criminology, published by the American Society of Criminology.

The researchers analyzed data from the National Crime Victimization Study conducted by the U.S. Department of Justice in 1999.

Lundman and Kaufman used data from 80,534 study participants but focused on the 7,034 people participating in the study who said they had been stopped by police at least once in the previous 12 months while driving a car.

As part of this study, the respondents were asked whether they thought the stop was legitimate and whether they thought the police acted properly.


Lundman noted that this study was based on citizen self-reports, which has advantages and disadvantages. While some citizens may not be truthful in self-reports, there have also been cases where police data has been found to be wrong.


About two-thirds of blacks thought there was a legitimate reason for the police to stop their car, compared to 80 percent of white drivers, results showed. About 79 percent of blacks thought the police acted properly during the traffic stop, compared to 88 percent of whites.

Hispanics fell in between whites and blacks in their assessment of encounters with police: 75 percent thought there was a legitimate reason for their traffic stop and 83 percent thought the police acted properly.

“An overwhelming majority of people of all races thought there was a good reason for the police to stop them and also had no issues with how they were treated,” Lundman said. “But still, there was a significant difference between black and white drivers concerning their views about the encounter.”

When the researchers took into account a variety of other factors that may affect how people view traffic stops – such as age, gender and social class – the results still showed that, overall, blacks were less likely than whites to think their stops were legitimate and were more likely to believe they were not treated properly by police.

ispanic men are also more likely than white men to question why they were stopped and how they were treated, but the results were not as stark among Hispanic women.

Lundman said the results raise the question of whether police really are treating minorities differently than whites, or whether minorities are perceiving a difference. While this study can’t answer that question, Lundman said the results suggest police have to try harder to ease the concerns of minority, particularly black, motorists.

“It may be that police in many instances are acting like saints, but the historical tensions and misgivings between the races permeate their encounters with African Americans,” Lundman said. “It means that police have to work even harder to reach out, to mend fences, to eliminate the suspicions.”

Lundman noted that this study was based on citizen self-reports, which has advantages and disadvantages. While some citizens may not be truthful in self-reports, there have also been cases where police data has been found to be wrong.

“No data source is perfect, but no data source is fatally flawed,” he said. “We need to look at data from police, from citizens and from independent observers to get the full picture of driving while black. This study is just one piece of the puzzle.”

Lundman said one reason to have confidence in this study is because many of results parallel the finding of past studies of police and policing. For example, this study found, like other studies, that young and male drivers report more traffic stops and people with higher incomes are more likely to report being satisfied with their police encounter.

“There is a pressing need for additional research on driving while black that uses police-reported, citizen-reported and observer-reported data,” he said.

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Contact: Richard Lundman, (614) 292-2110; Lundman.1@osu.edu
Written by Jeff Grabmeier, (614) 292-8457; Grabmeier.1@osu.edu