Rhode Island School-To-Prison Pipeline: Racial Profiling In Traffic Stops


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The School-To-Prison Pipeline: Racial Profiling In Traffic Stops

In 2003, Northeastern University found that non-white drivers were more likely than white drivers to be stopped by police across Rhode Island, more likely to be searched once stopped, and yet less likely to be found with contraband.7 A second analysis, in 2006, came to the same conclusion.8 In 2014, a third report indicates that a decade after the General Assembly passed legislation banning racial profiling by law enforcement, these racial disparities continue.9

In 2014, Northeastern University found that, “In 24 communities in Rhode Island, non-white residents were more likely to be stopped than their residential census figures would have predicted. In 4 of these communities ... the disparity is close to or greater than 10%.”10 A related fact reported in the 2014 study is that stopped non-white drivers were less likely to receive tickets stemming from their stop – raising serious questions as to the validity of those traffic stops in the first place.11

A small sample size means Northeastern’s 2014 conclusions are not as statistically significant as the two earlier studies, and legitimate methodological questions can be raised about how one best determines the comparative racial population for purposes of analyzing the stop data. Nonetheless, almost across the board non-white drivers in Rhode Island are stopped more often than expected given their representation in the residential population, while white drivers are stopped less often than expected. These persistent and consistent disparities over the course of a decade are impossible to ignore.

Perhaps more importantly, no such methodological questions can be raised about the search data, which present an even more compelling story. Once stopped, non-white drivers are more likely to be searched by law enforcement. This has persisted over a decade, ever since the first study was conducted in 2003. According to Northeastern University in 2014, “It is evident that in all but three Rhode Island communities, non-white drivers are more likely to be searched ... Twenty-seven jurisdictions continue to see racial disparities in searches, even after we exclude searches incident to arrest and searches incident to the inventory/tow of a vehicle.”12

This troubling disparity is made even more disconcerting when one examines another statistic: despite being subjected to searches less often, it is white individuals who are more likely to be found carrying contraband when they are searched after a traffic stop. Northeastern’s 2014 report noted: “When officers conduct searches for reasons other than incident to an arrest or an inventory/tow, whites are found with contraband 57.3% of the time, and non-whites are found with contraband only 44.7% of the time, on average.”13 This racial disparity, like those involving the stops and searches themselves, has held true throughout the traffic stop studies conducted over the years.

In short, non-white people in Rhode Island are stopped, eyed with suspicion, and searched more than their white neighbors, even as the productivity of these searches is relatively low considering the “probable cause” or “reasonable suspicion” that purportedly prompts them. Adding insult to injury, the result of such searches on black drivers is less fruitful than searches conducted on white drivers.

Distressingly, but not unexpectedly, the racial disparity in traffic stop searches has not been alleviated over time. In 2005, the ACLU examined the ten police departments that, at the time of the study then being conducted, had stopped more than 2,000 drivers and/or engaged in more than 100 discretionary searches.14 The ACLU found that four of the ten departments experienced an increase in disparity from 2001- 2002.

In 2014, the ACLU examined the racial disparities of those 10 departments again. Using data supplied by Northeastern University, the ACLU compared the percent of non-white drivers searched to white drivers searched, obtaining the ratios demonstrated below. Of those ten departments, the latest study shows that nine have experienced increases over their 2004-2005 rates. Further, all ten of the departments had a disparate search rate of minorities in each of the three periods studied.

The Town of Johnston – the only municipality among the ten that reported a decreased racial disparity in searches in 2014 – still searched non-whites 1.5 times more often than whites. In other cities and towns, the disparities are even more alarming. The State Police searched non-white individuals at a rate more than twice that of whites, while the Woonsocket police department searched non-white individuals more than three times as often as whites.

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7Farrell, Amy; McDevitt, Jack; Cronin, Shea; and Pierce, Erica. “Rhode Island Traffic Stops Statistics Act: final report” (2003) Institute on Race and Justice Publications. Paper 15
8Farrell, Amy and McDevitt, Jack. “Rhode Island traffic stop statistics data collection study 2004-2005: final report” (2006). Institute on Race and Justice Publications. Paper 11.
9McDevitt, Jack; Iwama, Janice; and Bailey-Laguerre, Lisa. “Rhode Island Traffic Stop Statistics Data Collection Study.” (2014) Northeastern University Institute on Race and Justice.
10Ibid., p. 44.
11Ibid., p. 48.
12Ibid., p. 74.
13Ibid., p. 85.
14ACLU of Rhode Island. The Persistence of Racial Profiling in Rhode Island: An Analysis and Recommendations. (2005) http://riaclu.org/images/uploads/racialprofilingreportMay05.pdf