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Black and Latino drivers searched by PA troopers more compared to white ones, according to study

According to a recent report that reviewed interactions between State Troopers and motorists, Black and Latinos drivers were more likely to be searched in 2022.

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Racial disparities exist in almost all sectors of life such as employment, housing, and education. 

And according to a recent study released Tuesday, May 23, they also exist in traffic stops.

The report, conducted by criminologist Robin Engel alongside a team of researchers at the National Policing Institute, found no disparity among racial and ethnic groups for warnings, citations and arrests statewide. 

State Police, however, were revealed to have more likely searched Black and Latino drivers compared to their white counterparts during stops in which the state trooper specifically initiated the confrontation based on probable cause, reasonable suspicion or permission from the driver.

These kinds of stops only accounted for 2.8% of more than more than 440,000 stops conducted in 2022, but for the states’ large Black and Latino population, it meant they were 1.9 and 1.3 times more likely to be subject to a discretionary search than white drivers, according to the report.

Disparities were also found in the rates of seizures during discretionary stops, with the rate in 2022 being higher in general across racial and ethnic groups than rates from between 2002 and 2010, according to the report. 

Tuesday’s report is the first in over 10 years after PA State Police stopped collecting traffic stop data in 2012, before they announced in 2021 that Engel would once again independently analyze traffic stop data. 

The decision to bring Engel back stems from a 2019 Spotlight PA investigation that found the department halted the practice without explanation or public notice.

The new report was meant to be released in April 2022, but researchers found the first year of data unusable because 85% of trooper stations failed to record demographic information during all types of traffic stops in large part because some troopers were unaware that they had to complete the form for stops that resulted in only a verbal warning, Engel told Spotlight PA last year. 

The racial disparities in question reached a record high in 2008 when Black and Latino drivers were 3.0 and 2.6 times more likely to be subject to a discretionary search than white drivers.

One of the similarities from previous reports to the newest one is that researchers found police most often seized items such as drugs, weapons, and money from the cars of white drivers.

For searches that were based on probable cause or reasonable suspicion, in which troopers had reason to believe the driver was guilty of committing a crime, they found items to seize in 75.8% of cars of white drivers, 73.5% of cars of Black drivers, and 65.1% of cars of Latino drivers. 

For searches that were done with the consent of the driver, troopers seized items in 52.4% of the vehicles of white drivers, 41.5% of the vehicles of Black drivers, and 32.9% of the vehicles of Latino drivers.

The latest analysis looks at stop outcomes, but did not, however, look at why certain drivers are more likely to be pulled over than others due to the research team being unable to find a reliable benchmark to use to compare the figures. 

According to the report, in 2022, PA State Police made 441,329 traffic stops in which officers marked 71.1% as white, 14.4% as Black, and 8.2% as Latino. 

Officers do not ask for this information as they are required to use their own perception to determine race or ethnicity as a way to better understand how an officer’s bias might affect policing outcomes.

But according to Engel, comparing the results to the residential population — one of the benchmarks — is not useful because where people live is more likely than not different to where they drive.

“It doesn’t tell you where you drive, when you drive, how you drive, what you drive, whether or not there’s an organizational enforcement in a particular community at a community’s request, whether or not there’s a DUI traffic point as part of your travels,” Engel said. “There’s a whole host of reasons why you could be stopped or at risk of being stopped, none of which is measured by the residential census population.”

Also in the report are recommendations for PA State Police. 

Researchers asked police to continue to refine data collection methods; assess patterns and trends in traffic stops at the troop and station levels; and enhance accountability and oversight mechanisms for trooper conduct during traffic stops, particularly those that result in a consent search, something that State Police Commissioner Christopher Paris confirmed on Tuesday. 

“I fundamentally believe in all sectors that which gets measured gets improved,” he said. “The fact that we can track this data over time, you know, really we think is only a positive, so I would expect our members to embrace this.”

State police and the research team will work together through 2025 and look to provide annual reports to the department over the next two years with a four-year contract that will cost State Police around $696,000.

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