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L.A. Times, Tina Daunt and Jill Leovy, “LAPD Offers 1st Data on Traffic Stops”

The Los Angeles Police Department stops members of different racial groups in numbers roughly proportional to their share of the population, but blacks and Latinos are far more likely than whites to be removed from their cars, patted down or searched, according to a study released Monday.

The data, from July through November of last year, were the first statistics publicly released as part of a federal consent decree that requires the department to collect information to determine whether officers engage in racial discrimination.

Among the findings: Thirty-eight percent of drivers stopped by police were recorded as Latino, 33% were white and 18% black. According to the 2000 Census, the city’s population is 46.5% Latino, 29.7% white and 10.9% African American.

Of those pulled over, 7% of whites were asked to step out of their cars, compared with 22% of Latinos and 22% of blacks. Once out of their cars, 67% of the blacks were patted down and 85% were subjected to a search of their person, car, residence or belongings, while 55% of Latinos were frisked and 84% were searched. Meanwhile, 50% of whites were frisked and 71% were searched.

Information on pedestrian stops revealed a similar pattern of blacks and Latinos being patted down and subjected to searches more often than whites. […]

[…] Jack Riley, director of the Rand Institute’s public safety and justice program, concurred.

“It’s easy to measure the number of people who have been stopped and ticketed,” Riley said. “But what’s harder … is then drawing conclusions about when police behavior is disproportionate.”

Researchers have struggled to determine the baseline against which to compare data on traffic stops, Riley said. Population statistics are not enough, he said. Researchers must consider not just how many motorists live in an area, but also when and where they drive.

“It is very hard to get good information on people’s driving habits and patterns without enormous investment in measuring,” Riley said. “There are literally tens of thousands of intersections in L.A., not to mention miles of streets. All those people driving on them are potentially committing driving violations. You have to got to understand what they are doing.”

In addition, he said, analyzing the data properly requires adjusting for factors such as the level of crime in a given area and the number of calls for service, which may affect how many officers are deployed there.

The racial makeup of people on parole and probation also matters, Riley said, because “if you are on probation or parole, police have a presumptive right to stop and search you and question you. That’s part of appropriate, proactive policing.” Given the difficulties, said Riley, who is helping to analyze data for the Oakland Police Department, “I’m not convinced that looking at this kind of stuff is very useful. I don’t think it gives a police department a strong tool for understanding how to do their job better.” […]

Bonus round: The study (PDF; 3.2 MB)

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