Researchers from Washington State University’s during the past 20 months analyzed records from more than two million traffic stops to determine if racial profiling or biased policing is being practiced by the Washington State Patrol.
The 125-page final report was delivered to WSP Chief Ronal W. Serpas this week. Conclusions showed there is no evidence of a systemic problem with biased policing within the Washington State Patrol. However, in a mail-in survey 40 to 70 percent of minority respondents said they believe that profiling is occurring.
Participating in the study were Michael Gaffney, assistant director, WSU Division of Governmental Studies and Services; researchers Clayton Mosher, sociology, WSU Vancouver; Mitch Pickerill, political science, WSU Pullman; Mike Smith, criminal justice, WSU Spokane, who is a nationally recognized expert on racial profiling; and Nicholas Lovrich, director of the university’s Division of Governmental Studies and Services.
“The Washington State Patrol is taking the lead in the United States by requesting an outside, objective review of their work,” said Lovrich. “What we found in our exhaustive study was that there does not appear to be biased policing within the patrol.”
“The state patrol took a big risk by turning over all their numbers to us and asking us to analyze them,” explained Gaffney. “There was a lot at stake here for them, because unlike virtually all previous studies of racially coded traffic stop data in other states and urban centers across the country, our analysis of WSP traffic stop data indicate no evidence of biased policing in the rate of driver stops.”
The research team concluded that there are no significant disparities in stop rates observed across ethnic/racial classifications of drivers. According to the report, “These findings are unequivocal and clearly demonstrated — the likelihood of being stopped by the WSP in not affected by the race or ethnicity of drivers on Washington’s roads and highways.”
Because the WSP only issues tickets in about 30% of its traffic stops, the WSU team also looked to see whether any one ethnic group was receiving a higher rate of tickets over another. Tested under the rigor of academic analysis, the data clearly demonstrated that the decision of whether to cite was likely to be based upon contextual factors such as the seriousness of the violation and the number of offenses observed by the trooper, not the person’s race or ethnicity.
The study also analyzed the rate of searches. Because the actual number of searches is quite small, only 3.5% of all traffic stops result in a search, and because the data collection method is still improving, it is not possible to draw complete conclusions at this time. However, according to Gaffney, “there is no indication from the data that there is a systemic, patrol-wide problem of bias in search decisions.
“The seriousness of the offense is the best predictor of a search being conducted, for nondiscretionary as well as discretionary searches” the report stated. Nonetheless, race is still an important factor in searches, a factor that will require more study and analysis to determine why this independent variable is still a strong predictor.”
Another noteworthy finding is that while black drivers, Hispanic drivers and Native American drivers are more likely to be searched than white drivers, the report suggests that this is not the result of officers’ use of discretion.
The report went on to state that there is no difference in the rates of discretionary and nondiscretionary searches of minority drivers. This suggests that where the WSP officers have the most discretion in choosing to conduct a search, they do not act differently toward different racial groups than when they act with no (or with little) discretion.
Another finding is that, “the rate of searches in self-initiated contacts is nearly identical to the rate in all contacts.” This fact alone would seem to indicate the absence of bias in the decision to search. The rate of discretionary searches in self-initiated contacts is only .05% compared to .08% in all contacts. This dispels the argument that troopers target certain motorist for searches prior to the actual contact.”
“Biased policing is one of the leading issues facing law enforcement today,” said Serpas. “Law enforcement agencies must earn trust and legitimacy from the communities they serve. To do this, they must confront head on complex issues such as biased policing.
“We must look at ourselves objectively and if something needs to be fixed, to fix it. Requesting this outside analysis of our work was, and continues to be, the right thing to do.”
Serpas said that while these numbers reflect a very positive image of the WSP, that it will never negate even one person’s pain if they felt disrespected.
“This study does not mean we are done examining this issue, there is no place in the WSP for biased policing, period.” he said.
If anyone has a concern or complaint about a traffic stop, they may e-mail Serpas at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
In addition to the analysis of the traffic stop data, WSU is also conducting a statewide mail survey on the overall impression the public has of the WSP. This survey is still in progress, but the early numbers indicate that even though the data study indicates the WSP does not practice biased policing, the public perception is that it does.
In the WSU survey, asks participants to react to the statement, “Overall, the Washington State Patrol does a good job of performing its mission.” Whites, Latinos, African Americans, Asians and Native Americans all were over 80% in the categories of agree or strongly agree.
“It is important to note,” Gaffney said, “that in the past year enforcement activities have increased in the patrol by over 25 percent. Of equal interest is a corresponding decline in the number of citizen complaints filed against troopers during the same time period.”
However, when the question was asked “Do you believe that troopers in the WSP engage in profiling when they decide to stop drivers?” the respondents had a much less favorable response. Over 70% of African-Americans, over 60% of Latinos, approximately 40% of Native-Americans and Asians, and 20% of whites indicated that they believed the WSP is engaged in profiling.
The report stated: “Despite the clear evidence that WSP officers are not engaged in biased policing with respect to the stopping of motor vehicles, much of the public believes biased policing is taking place — and this is particularly the case for minority residents in the state.”
“This tells me that we have a lot of work to do in some of our communities throughout the state,” Serpas said, “because if even a few people perceive us to be biased, we need to be able to share our experiences to help dispel that myth. The men and women in the patrol are working hard to promote public safety in a fair and just manner, independent analysis confirms this fact, and I really would like to see them get the recognition they deserve.”
“Indicators regarding trooper professionalism, trooper competence, trooper reliability, WSP performance and overall mission performance continue to demonstrate that the patrol is widely viewed in a very favorable light by the people of the state,” Gaffney said.
Serpas plans to continue a series of town meetings throughout the state in the coming months to solicit feedback from the people of Washington.
To review the WSU Study, you may go to http://www.wsp.wa.gov, where there is a link to the study.