Just as men and women view relationships differently, so too are there differences between how people of color and police officers see the touchy issue of racial profiling.
For Hispanics and African-Americans, the idea that police officers might assume criminal activity based on skin color is an insulting affront to decency. They see racial profiling as an ugly throwback to a time in our history when all-white police forces preyed upon non-whites with impunity. To some, it may even be a way of putting middle- and upper-class Hispanics and African-Americans in their place.
For the men — and women — in blue, accusations that officers would stop and search black and brown motorists without probable cause, or even the less stringent standard of “reasonable suspicion” — are unfounded. Some believe that the flap over racial profiling is much ado about nothing. They see it as a paranoid fantasy based on the assumption that police forces — nationally, still predominantly white — are racist. And if law-abiding citizens are harassed by these police? Well, a little inconvenience is the price of good law enforcement.
That is the prevailing opinion at the Texas Department of Public Safety. The agency patrols the roadways of a state where Hispanics make up 32 percent of the population and African-Americans account for another 11.3 percent — and, according to department statistics, more than their share are stopped and searched.
To its credit, the DPS stuck its neck out by volunteering a year ago to begin collecting data on the hundreds of thousands of traffic stops, searches and arrests the agency makes each year. But, to its shame, it stuck its head in the sand when the findings began to roll in.
Last fall, The Dallas Morning News released the results of an audit of 895,000 tickets handed out by troopers in the previous year. The newspaper compared the percentage of tickets issued, by race, to the racial breakdown of the areas where the citations were issued. It found that in 26 rural counties, black drivers were on ticket rolls in twice their percentages in the population.
Denying any wrongdoing, the DPS dismissed the study as flawed because it was not known what percentage of the drivers on the road at any given time were African-American.
Besides, a department spokesperson said, most of the stops were probably initiated when a radar gun caught speeders. In those cases, an officer might not know the race of the motorist until the officer had approached the vehicle. Fair enough. But what assumptions come into play once the officer makes contact with the motorist and takes note of color?
It is more difficult for the DPS to dismiss the results of a second audit, earlier this month, that examined search rates. Examining 491,000 traffic tickets and 441,000 warning citations, the Morning News determined that the DPS was more likely to search minority drivers than it was white ones.
With white motorists, troopers searched one in 50. With blacks, the figure rose to one in 22. Hispanics were the most searchable, with one in 20 searched. Where only warnings were issued, the search rate for white motorists dropped to one in 70. Curiously, the rates for blacks and Hispanics stayed the same. That produced a new average — minority drivers were 3.5 times more likely to be searched than white drivers.
More troubling is what those searches turned up — or didn’t. The department says that in the case of whites and blacks, about 10 percent of searches hit pay dirt, turning up drugs, illegal weapons or other unlawful material. In searches of Hispanics, however, the “hit rate” drops to 6.5 percent. While the DPS is, for whatever reason, searching Hispanics more often than any other group, officers are getting less for the effort.
Why would the department continue to drill a dry hole? Why search Hispanics more than twice as often as whites if the searches aren’t paying off? And doesn’t the fact that they’re not paying off disprove the very thing that fueled them — the troopers’ assumption of criminal activity?
A DPS spokesperson explains that Hispanics are searched more often because troopers are looking for drug dealers from Mexico and, logically, those bad actors are probably going to be Hispanic.
Did I mention the part about Texas being one third Hispanic?
The Texas Department of Public Safety says that it is being picked on and condemned without proof, that it is being branded guilty until proven innocent because of an unfair assumption. It feels like a victim of prejudice, of the tendency of some to expect the worst from those in a certain group.
Don’t you just hate that?