A new report on traffic stops in Missouri is drawing attention for an eye-popping statistic: Black drivers in the state are 85 percent more likely than whites to be stopped by police. It’s a 10 percent increase from the year before and the largest disparity since 2000, the year the state started tracking the race of the people it pulled over.
The figure comes from an annual report on vehicle stops compiled by the state attorney general. That report also found that black drivers were 51 percent more likely than whites to be searched after they were stopped. Yet the report found that white people were more likely to be found with contraband.
“Quite frankly, it’s really deplorable,” John Gaskin, a spokesperson for the St. Louis County chapter of the NAACP, told the Associated Press.
The report suggests that four years after the police shooting and death of Michael Brown drew national attention to the Black Lives Matter movement and made Missouri a flashpoint in national conversations about race and policing, little has changed. In 2015, the Department of Justice released a report on policing in Ferguson that showed that while black people made up roughly 67 percent of residents, 85 percent of drivers stopped by police were black; black people also accounted for 90 percent of those issued a citation and 93 percent of those arrested.
While the new numbers from Missouri are noteworthy, particularly given prior incidents in the state, they speak to a much broader issue: a racial disparity in police stops across the country. It’s a disparity that can have particularly negative impacts on people of color, trapping them in the criminal justice system and increasing their chances of facing police violence.
“Driving while black” is a national issue
The new Missouri report is just the latest in a growing amount of data showing that black people are more likely than whites to be stopped by police. The Justice Department found that in 2011, black drivers were more likely than whites and Hispanics to be stopped by police, and that blacks were twice as likely to be searched once stopped. A number of cities and states have reported similar findings in the years since.
Even as a variety of reports suggest that racial disparities in traffic stops are widespread, a relatively small number of states actually track race in traffic stops, making annual data like Missouri’s somewhat rare. States that have attempted to introduce legislation to track the issue have often faced strong resistance from police departments, which argue that these measures would affect officers’ willingness to do their jobs. In Alabama, for example, a proposal that would require law enforcement to track the race of those stopped by police has failed repeatedly, most recently after encountering resistance from police groups this year.
Racial disparities in traffic stops could be due to a number of factors. In many states, police patrol high-crime areas more heavily, and many of these areas are often in or near communities of color. Experts have argued that departments incentivizing police to have high numbers of arrests — or to hand out more tickets in order to boost revenue for local governments — also increase the likelihood of people of color being stopped.
But even with these explanations, experts argue that race also plays a role due to the sheer size of the disparity between black and white drivers, and the fact that studies have shown that police are far less respectful when interacting with black drivers.
“Sometimes we’ll hear the assertion that if you’re not doing anything wrong, the police won’t stop you. That is clearly untrue,” Alexandra Natapoff, a professor at the University of California Irvine’s School of Law, told Vox’s German Lopez. “Police stop individuals, particularly individuals in communities of color, for all sorts of reasons that have nothing to do with whether that individual is committing a crime.”
Being pulled over by police can have severe consequences. In recent years, academics and activists have called attention to racial disparities in traffic stops as one of the main factors exposing people of color and the poor to the justice system.
“It allows officers to pry into people’s lives,” Nicole Gonzalez Van Cleve, an assistant professor of criminal justice at Temple University and author of Crook County, told Lopez in 2016. “Once you’re marked with these misdemeanors and traffic violations, and the more they stop you and the more they mark your records, they have more ammunition to continue doing so.”
But there’s another problem as well: Traffic stops can quickly escalate into police violence. In 2015, Samuel DuBose was fatally shot in the head by a University of Cincinnati police officer after being stopped for a missing license plate. That same year, after being pulled over for a malfunctioning brake light, Walter Scott was shot while fleeing a police officer in South Carolina. That same year, Sandra Bland was found dead in a jail cell days after being pulled over by a cop for failing to signal a lane change.
Perhaps the most significant example of this is Philando Castile, who was fatally shot by police during a traffic stop in 2016. Castile had told the officer that he was a legally licensed gun owner and was reaching for his license, but the officer said he feared Castile was reaching for a weapon. The officer said he’d pulled Castile over because he matched a description for robbery suspect due to his “wide-set nose.”
This was not Castile’s first traffic stop — according to reports, he had been stopped more than 40 times before that fatal encounter.