Racial Profiling Data Illuminating, yet Inconclusive

The nation's most comprehensive study to date shows a pattern suggesting profiling, but reporting methods need more uniformity

The state's most comprehensive review of law enforcement racial profiling data was released late last month during a press conference at the Capitol, and it revealed that blacks and Hispanics were far more likely to be searched during a traffic stop, but were less likely to be found with contraband as a result of those searches. According to the report, which was based on 2003 data, Hispanics in Austin are more than twice as likely to be searched by police than whites, while blacks are more than three times as likely to be searched. In Travis County, sheriff's deputies searched Hispanics and blacks one and a half times as often as they searched whites.

The analysis, conducted by Austin-based consultant Dwight Steward and the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition on behalf of the TCJC and the state chapters of the ACLU, NAACP, and LULAC, is the second annual report on data collected under SB 1074, passed in 2001, and is thus far the nation's most comprehensive study of racial profiling data. Last year's report, based on 2002 data, contained reports from approximately 500 city police and county sheriff's offices. The new report collected statistics from more than 1,000 agencies. "[This is] a continuation of the work we did last year," Steward said at a Feb. 24 press conference. The data he had to work with this time around was "more robust and reliable," he said. Even with more data, however, the results are similar – minorities are more likely to be stopped and searched than are whites. There is a "pretty strong emerging pattern, consistent with a pattern of racial profiling," he said. Still, he sounded a note of caution: The data may be suggestive of a pattern, he said, but because of inconsistent collection methods, the implication of the findings is still unknown. "Despite departmental numbers indicating significant racial disparities, most agencies gave no indication in their reports as to what caused these discrepancies," reads the report. "Few gave explanations for the differences in treatment or identified any mitigating factors based on legitimate law enforcement practices that might have caused the racial disparities." Steward, along with a coterie of civil rights advocates and a handful of state legislators, recommends that the state adopt uniform reporting standards, require departments to collect "additional, explanatory data elements," and establish an independent statewide repository for the annual reports.

Last year's report included data comparing the number of minority drivers stopped by police to their proportion of the driving population. This time around, researchers focused principally on an analysis of the race of drivers searched during traffic stops. Within the search data, researchers paid particular attention to so-called "consent" searches, searches where an officer relies on his own discretion to ask for a search but has no probable cause, or other legal justification, to do so. (By definition, consent searches do not include searches pursuant to arrest or authorized by warrant.) In Austin, Hispanics were consent searched by APD officers 2.7 times as often as whites, while blacks were subject to APD consent searches more than three times as often as whites. Latinos and blacks each were 1.5 times more likely to face consent searches by TCSO deputies. According to the report, APD searched both minority groups more often than they had in 2002, while TCSO reported searching each of the groups of drivers less often than the year before. Researchers also compared search rates to "hit rates," the number of times that contraband – such as drugs or weapons – was found as a result of searches. Although that data is not required by law, 63 agencies from across the state, including APD, collected and submitted hit rate statistics for analysis. According to the report, blacks and Latinos in Austin are slightly more likely to be found with contraband items during a search than are whites. (TCSO did not report hit rate data.) The data is not broken down by type of search, Steward noted. If it were, it might help explain whether there are racial profiling problems. For example, if the majority of contraband seized by APD is during consent searches, it may illuminate good police practices and sound judgement calls. However, if a majority of the contraband comes as a result of searches pursuant to arrest and cannot explain high minority consent search rates, it may instead illuminate a practice of profiling.

Nonetheless, the advocates and lawmakers gathered last week do not think the state should pass a ban on all consent searches and wait for additional data that may never materialize. Despite the name, consent searches rarely turn on actual consent, said Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston. "We know how consent searches happen in Texas: The police stop you and they don't ask for a search. They say, 'We're going to search your vehicle,'" she said. "Young black men in Texas have a reason to fear death, taxes, and DWB – driving while black." (To read the statewide report, go to www.criminaljusticecoalition.org, or call 441-8123.)

Meanwhile, the state's law enforcement agencies were required to report their 2004 racial profiling data last week under the provisions of SB 1074. In a March 1 memo to the mayor and city council, Austin Police Chief Stan Knee reported that in general there were no significant differences in most of the statistics derived from the department's 2004 records of traffic and pedestrian stops. He noted, however, that the major exception was the number and distribution of searches, especially consent searches, which declined significantly. The total number of traffic stops that resulted in a search decreased by nearly 29% last year, while the number of pedestrian stops – primarily in the department's downtown and central east sectors, where walking beat cops patrol – decreased 37% in 2004. Additionally, the total number of consent searches decreased by 63% – from a total of just over 2,000 in 2003 to just over 800 in 2004. (Consent searches during pedestrian stops decreased by a little more than 67%.) The rate reductions were fairly equal for all racial groups. Traffic stop searches decreased by just over 59% for whites, 63% for Hispanics, and more than 64% for blacks. Pedestrian searches decreased nearly 68% for whites, nearly 65% for Hispanics and nearly 69% for blacks. Last winter, the department pledged a 20% reduction in consent searches and an equal reduction for consent searches that did not result in the seizure of any contraband, Knee noted. While the numbers did go down, he wrote, "it was not as significant as we projected." Indeed, while the number of consent searches decreased by more than 50%, the "seizure rate" remained the same, with a hit rate of just over 12%. (The hit rate in 2003 was 12.5%.) "It is uncertain why the seizure rate was not better when the officers applied stricter procedures to asking for consent to search," Knee wrote, pledging to continue monitoring the seizure rate this year to determine if any "additional training will help."

Austin Police Department's Racial Profiling Stats on "Consent" Searches


167,648 total traffic stops

15,785 total searches

2,141 consent searches

Percentage of stops resulting in searches:
Blacks: 18%
Hispanics: 13.4%
Whites: 11.7%


177,741 total traffic stops

11,250 total searches

804 consent searches during traffic stops

Percentage of stops resulting in searches:
Blacks: 8.2%
Hispanics: 6.6%
Whites: 7.1%

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Racial profiling, SB 1074, Senfronia Thompson, Dwight Steward, ACLU, LULAC, NAACP, Austin Police Department, Travis Co. Sheriff's Office, APD, TCSO, Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, TCJC, Stan Knee, consent searches

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