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.