Report says many traffic stops are inefficient, as well as unjust

A police officer talks to a driver who he's pulled over for speeding. The lights on his police car are flashing.

A police officer talks to a driver he's pulled over for speeding. (Photo courtesy of Kali9/Getty Images)

About 40% of all interactions between police and the public are traffic stops — and about 20 million happen each year. Ample research has shown that police are not only more likely to pull over Black and Latinx drivers, but to search them, too.

But in racial profiling, do police find contraband in these searches? Are the disparities in search rates justified? The answer is no, according to a new working paper by Berkeley Haas labor economist Conrad Miller and Benjamin Feigenberg, an associate professor of economics at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

The two analyzed data from five million traffic stops for speeding by Texas Highway Patrol troopers between 2009 and 2015. While Black and Latinx drivers were searched more often than whites, they were less likely to have illegal items.

Further, among motorists with no criminal history, Black drivers were nearly three times more likely than white drivers to be searched after being pulled over, and Latinx drivers were nearly twice as likely to be searched. This was true no matter the race or ethnicity of the trooper.

If everyone was searched at equal rates, not only would there be less racial profiling, but police would actually find slightly more illegal items than they do now, since more white people and fewer Black and Latinx people would be searched, the researchers concluded.

And since higher search rates likely lead to higher arrest rates and more potential exposure to force, said Miller, “ … decreasing searches of Black and Latino motorists decreases the risk that things go badly and force is used.”

In the city of Berkeley, changes to how traffic stops are conducted may be ahead. The Berkeley City Council is considering a proposal to use unarmed public works officials to conduct traffic stops, rather than police officers. It’s on the schedule for the council’s July 14 meeting.

Read the report, co-authored by a Berkeley Haas labor economist, here.