Racial Disparities in Policing Persist, City Report Shows

Black, Latinx drivers overrepresented in APD traffic stops and searches

Photo via Getty Images

Racial disparities persist in traffic stops conducted by the Austin Police Depart­ment, according to the latest report issued by the Office of Police Oversight, the Office of Innovation, and the Equity Office.

The three city offices found that in 2019, Black Austinites accounted for 14% of motor vehicle stops, despite only comprising about 8% of the city's population. Latinx residents make up 30.6% of the city's population but accounted for 32.8% of the traffic stops. Conversely, white and Asian Austin­ites were both underrepresented; white residents are 53.6% of Austin's population but only 47.1% of those stopped, and Asian Austinites, 6.5% of the city, accounted for 4% of stops.

The report builds on work the offices began last year (looking at 2015-18) with data that APD is required by state law to report annually. The OPO, Equity, and Innovation joint analysis adds context to the original APD reports by comparing the data to the city's demographics and thus highlighting the size and direction of disparities. In June, City Council adopted a goal of eliminating all racial disparities in policing by 2023, so the joint analysis provides one benchmark for how the city is progressing toward that goal.

The three offices also found that when an officer knew a subject's race before initiating a traffic stop, Black and Latinx drivers were more likely to be pulled over than either white or Asian motorists. When Black drivers are pulled over, they are more likely to be searched by an officer – even when a search is not mandated by state law.

When police officers pull someone over, they can conduct "high-discretion searches" if, for example, they see contraband or other­wise determine probable cause. "Low-discretion searches" are those that are required by law – such as before an arrest is made or when a vehicle is towed. The joint analysis found that Black Austinites are disproportionately subjected to high-discretion searches – and the disparity increased from 2018.

In 2019, Black Austinites accounted for 14% of motor vehicle stops, despite only comprising about 8% of the city’s population.

OPO Director Farah Muscadin told the Council Public Safety Committee on Nov. 16 that the trend was concerning and APD should look at ways to reverse it. "African Americans are more likely to experience high-discretion searches than low-discretion searches," Muscadin said, noting this is not true of any other ethnic group. "This number, when compared to 2018, increased by 7.7%." The report also found geographic disparities; people in the west of town were more likely to receive a warning after a traffic stop, while those on the Eastside were more likely to be arrested.

In a statement issued on Nov. 19, an APD spokesperson said the report's findings were currently under review and that the department remains "committed to eliminating racial disparities among communities of color and underrepresented populations." Although the report indicates some modest reductions in these disparities from the prior year's data, the authors also note that, thus far, APD has not implemented any of the recommendations they offered in the 2015-2018 report that could help further reduce or eliminate disparities.

"Over the last five years, the total number of warnings, field observations, citations, and arrests shifted. Even with these changing numbers, racial disparity continued and generally worsened," the report reads. The authors add that they "renew all recommendations set forth in [last year's] Joint Report on which APD has yet to take action."

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Austin Police Department, Office of Police Oversight, Office of Innovation, Equity Office, Farah Muscadin, Council Public Safety Committee

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