The Daily Tar Heel

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Friday May 27th

UNC professor Frank Baumgartner on race, traffic stops and why you should care

Photo contributed by Frank Baumgartner
Buy Photos Photo contributed by Frank Baumgartner

Frank Baumgartner is a political science professor at UNC-Chapel Hill. He recently published a book, Suspect Citizens: What 20 Million Traffic Stops Tell Us About Policing and Race, about how racial differences impact the outcomes of routine traffic stops in the United States. Staff writer Claire Willmschen asked him about his new book and the research he has been working on for years.

The Daily Tar Heel: Can you talk generally about your research?

Frank Baumgartner: In 1999, North Carolina became the first state in the country to mandate that officers record demographic information about every person that they pull over on the highway. Since 2000, the state highway patrol has been gathering this data, and since 2002, the law was expanding to include every police department in the state. So we have been collecting data on every traffic stop since 2002. Now, there have been over 20 million traffic stops added to the database. Unfortunately, no state agency ever analyzed the data, so that’s what we did in the book. That was the purpose of the book. And the result is that we can estimate the odds of being pulled over if you’re Black, white or Hispanic. We show that, roughly speaking, a Black driver is about twice as likely to be pulled over on the highways. When you compare the proportion of the population that’s Black to the portion of people who get pulled over who are Black, it’s much higher for Black drivers. But more importantly, we know everyone that got pulled over, and then we know what happened: Did they get arrested? Did they get a ticket? Did they get searched, or what? In that case, it’s very clear that Blacks are over twice as likely to be searched given that they were pulled over.

DTH: What about your findings has particularly interested you?

FB: Something that I feel is particularly relevant to readers of The Daily Tar Heel is that young people are much more targeted for police investigations and searches. The other thing is that it’s very tightly connected to what time of day it is. So if you’re driving your car late at night or in the wee hours of the morning, it’s very high rates of search, whereas during the morning rush hour, it’s very low rates of search. So we controlled for all those things and we still found that there were very significant gender and race effects. Women are much less likely to be searched and Blacks and Hispanics are much more likely. Younger people, whether they’re males or females, are more likely to be searched. So that triple combination of a young man of color really is the target for disparate police behavior across the entire state.

Photo contributed by Frank Baumgartner

DTH: Do you feel there’s a part of your findings that is often overlooked?

FB: This is another element that I feel it’s important for young people to understand: if you’re driving a car, you’re breaking the law. There was a sheriff down in Florida in the 1970s who was concerned about drug trafficking on his part of the interstate highway. He started pulling people over because they looked suspicious. Those traffic stops were often times rejected in the court because he was basically just pulling over Blacks and Hispanics; the judges were throwing him out. He went back to his law books and he found out that by studying the traffic code, he could find technical violations of some element of the traffic or vehicle code. If you’re not driving fast enough, he could say that you’re impeding traffic. If you touch the white line at the margin of the road, then you’re driving on the shoulder. If you swerve at all, then you’re engaging in unsafe driving. That’s the traffic code, and the vehicle code is that you can’t have too much tinting on your windows, you can’t have a crack in any of your lights and all these little details. Now the thing about it is, once you break a law, the police do not have to enforce the law equitably. Anyone who breaks the law opens themselves to the investigation of a police officer and that officer can pick and choose.

DTH: What are the implications of these findings?

FB: One is the use of the traffic code to fight the war on crime is a colossal waste of everybody's money. It’s not effective, and we’re not keeping people safe. What the traffic law should be for is to stop people from speeding, stop people from running through red lights and deal with drunk drivers. Those are real dangers on the highway. But to use the vehicle code as an excuse to go on a fishing expedition is a very low probability waste of time. On the other hand, while it provides very little public safety value, it very much alienates entire communities, especially communities of color. It causes people not to trust the police, and that’s really a bad outcome for everybody. When people don’t trust the police, especially in the neighborhoods where more crime occurs, then the police find it hard to investigate and solve crimes. So criminals can benefit from this lack of trust in the police. The other part is that it really deprives people of their full sense of citizenship. That’s why we call the book "Suspect Citizens." If you’re subjected to a routine reminder that the average police officer in your community thinks he needs to pull you over and see what you’re up to, maybe look in the trunk of your car or ask you to empty your pockets, that sends a very strong signal to you that you’re not a full citizen with all the rights of everyone else; the police see you as a potential criminal. That’s very alienating. That would make anyone mad.


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