For Black Motorists, a Never-Ending Fear of Being Stopped

Michael A. Fletcher, Natinoal Geographic, March 27, 2018

Black motorists are pulled over by police at rates exceeding those for whites. It’s a flash point in the national debate over race, as many minorities see a troubling message: You don’t belong here.

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Traffic stops—the most common interaction between police and the public—have become a focal point in the debate about race, law enforcement, and equality in America. A disproportionate share of the estimated 20 million police traffic stops in the United States each year involve black drivers, even though they are no more likely to break traffic laws than whites. Black and Hispanic motorists are more likely than whites to be searched by police, although they are no more likely to be carrying contraband.

Across the country, law-abiding black and Hispanic drivers are left frightened and humiliated by the inordinate attention they receive from police, who too often see them as criminals. Such treatment leaves minorities feeling violated, angry, and wary of police and their motives.

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Shaken by cases in which seemingly routine traffic stops turn deadly, many black parents rehearse with their children what to do if they are pulled over: Lower your car window so officers have a clear line of sight, turn on the interior lights, keep your hands visible, have your license and registration accessible, and for God’s sake, let the officer know you are reaching for them so he doesn’t shoot you.

Drivers of all races worry about running afoul of the rules of the road. But blacks and Hispanics, in particular, also worry about being stopped if they are driving a nice car in a modest or upscale community, a raggedy car in a mostly white one, or any kind of car in a high-crime area. It affects everyone, from ministers and professional athletes to lawyers and the super-rich.

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In 2011 federal investigators found that the department pulled over Hispanic drivers up to nine times more often than other motorists. The stops were part of a crackdown on undocumented immigrants ordered by Joe Arpaio, the Maricopa County sheriff from 1993 to 2016.

Courts ruled the stops illegal, but Arpaio pressed ahead and was found guilty of criminal contempt in July 2017. President Donald Trump—who has stoked racial tensions by bashing immigrants, protesting athletes, and others—pardoned Arpaio the following month. Arpaio recently announced plans to run for a seat in the U.S. Senate.

The statistics on traffic stops elsewhere are spotty—neither uniformly available nor comprehensive—but they show the same pattern of blacks and Hispanics being stopped and searched more frequently than others. The disparity spans the nation, affecting drivers in urban, suburban, and rural areas. Men are more at risk than women, and for black men, being disproportionately singled out is virtually a universal experience.

A 2017 study in Connecticut, one of the few states that collect and analyze comprehensive traffic-stop data, found that police disproportionately pull over black and Hispanic drivers during daylight hours, when officers can more easily see who is behind the wheel. {snip}

“One reason minorities are stopped disproportionately is because police see violations where they are,” said Louis Dekmar, president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, who runs the police department in LaGrange, Georgia. “Crime is often significantly higher in minority neighborhoods than elsewhere. And that is where we allocate our resources. That is the paradox.”

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[Editor’s Notes: 1. Graphs and anecdotes accompany the original story. 2. National Geographic’s entire April issue is devoted to race. They explain why here.]

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