Date: Sat, 22 Aug 1998 11:02:47 -0700
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Driving While Black; A Statistician Proves That Prejudice Still Rules the Road
By John Lamberth [newspaper source not cited]
Sunday, August 16, 1998; Page C01
In 1993, I was contacted by attorneys whose clients had been
arrested on the
New Jersey Turnpike for possession of drugs. They told me they had
across 25 African American defendants over a three-year period all
on the same stretch of turnpike in Gloucester County, but not a
defendant. I was asked whether, and how much, this pattern reflected
treatment of blacks.
They wanted to know what a professional statistician would make of
numbers. What were the probabilities that this pattern could occur
naturally, that is, by chance? Since arrests for drug offenses
after traffic stops on the highway, was it possible that so many
arrested because the police were disproportionately stopping them?
I decided to try to answer their questions and embarked on one of
intriguing statistical studies of my career: a census of traffic and
violators by race on Interstate 95 in New Jersey. It would require a
design, teams of researchers with binoculars and a rolling survey.
To relieve your suspense, the answer was that the rate at which
stopped was greatly disproportionate to their numbers on the road
their propensity to violate traffic laws. Those findings were
central to a
March 1996 ruling by Judge Robert E. Francis of the Superior Court
Jersey that the state police were de facto targeting blacks, in
their rights under the U.S. and New Jersey constitutions. The judge
suppressed the evidence gathered in the stops. New Jersey is now
The New Jersey litigation is part of a broad attack in a number of
including Maryland, on what has been dubbed the offense of
while black. While this problem has been familiar anecdotally to
Americans and civil rights advocates for years, there is now
highway patrols are singling out blacks for stops on the illegal and
incorrect theory that the practice, known as racial profiling, is
likely to yield drug arrests. Statistical techniques are proving
helpful in proving targeting, just as they have been in proving
discrimination in employment.
This was not my first contact with the disparate treatment of blacks
criminal justice system. My academic research over the past 25 years
me from an interest in small group decision-making to jury
composition and the application of the death penalty. I became aware
blacks were disproportionately charged with crimes, particularly
ones; that they were underrepresented on jury panels and thus on
that they were sentenced to death at a much greater rate than their
As I began the New Jersey study, I knew from experience that any
that questioned police procedures was sensitive. I knew that what I
stand the test of a court hearing in which every move I made would be
challenged by experts.
First, I had to decide what I needed to know. What was the black
"population" of the road--that is, how many of the people traveling
turnpike over a given period of time were African American? This
task is a
far cry from determining the population of a town, city or state.
no Census Bureau figures. The population of a roadway changes all
day. By sampling the population of the roadway over a given period,
make an accurate determination of the average number of blacks on
I designed and implemented two surveys. We stationed observers by
of the road, with the assignment of counting the number of cars and
of the occupants in randomly selected three-hour blocks of time over a
two-week period. The New Jersey Turnpike has four lanes at its
two in each direction. By the side of the road, we placed an
each lane, equipped with binoculars to observe and note the number
and the race of occupants, along with a person to write down what the
observers said. The team observed for an hour and a half, took a
break while moving to another observation point and repeated the
In total, we conducted more than 21 sessions between 8 a.m. and 8
June 11 to June 24, 1993, at four sites between Exits 1 and 3 of the
turnpike, among the busiest highway segments in the nation. We counted
roughly 43,000 cars, of which 13.5 percent had one or more black
This was consistent with the population figures for the 11 states
most of the vehicles observed were registered.
For the rolling survey, Fred Last, a public defender, drove at a
mph (5 mph above the speed limit at the time). He counted all cars
passed him as violators and all cars he passed as nonviolators.
into a tape recorder, he also noted the race of the driver of each
the end of each day, he collated his results and faxed them to me.
Last counted 2096 cars. More than 98 percent were speeding and thus
to being stopped by police. African Americans made up about 15
those drivers on the turnpike violating traffic laws.
Utilizing data from the New Jersey State Police, I determined that
percent of those who were stopped on this part of the turnpike were
To summarize: African Americans made up 13.5 percent of the turnpike's
population and 15 percent of the speeders. But they represented 35
of those pulled over. In stark numbers, blacks were 4.85 times as
be stopped as were others.
We did not obtain data on the race of drivers and passengers
being stopped or on the rate at which vehicles were searched. But we
from police records that 73.2 percent of those arrested along the
over a 3 1/2-year period by troopers from the area's Moorestown
were black--making them 16.5 times more likely to be arrested than
Attorneys for the 25 African Americans who had been arrested on the
and charged with possessing drug or guns filed motions to suppress
seized when they were stopped arguing that police stopped them
their race. Their motions were consolidated and heard by Judge Francis
between November 1994 and May 1995.
My statistical study, bolstered by an analysis of its validity by
Kadane, professor of statistics at Carnegie Mellon University, was the
primary exhibit in support of the motions.
But Francis also heard testimony from two former New Jersey troopers
said they had been coached to make race-based "profile" stops to
their criminal arrests. And the judge reviewed police in-service
aids such as videos that disproportionately portrayed minorities as
The statistical disparities, Francis wrote, are "indeed stark . . . .
Defendants have proven at least a de facto policy on the part of the
Police . . . of targeting blacks for investigation and arrest." The
ordered that the state's evidence suppressed.
My own work in this field continues. In 1992, Robert L. Wilkins was
in a rented car with family members when Maryland State Police
ordered them out, and conducted a search for drugs, which were not
Wilkins happened to be a Harvard Law School trained public defender in
Washington. With the support of the Maryland ACLU, he sued the state
who settled the case with, among other things, an agreement to provide
highway-stop data to the organization.
I was asked by the ACLU to evaluate the Maryland data in 1996 and
1997. I conducted a rolling survey in Maryland similar to the one I
before and found a similar result. While 17.5 percent of the traffic
violators on I-95 north of Baltimore were African American, 28.8
those stopped and 71.3 percent of those searched by the Maryland State
Police were African American. U.S. District Judge Catherine Blake
ruled in 1997 that the ACLU made a "reasonable showing" that Maryland
troopers on I-95 were continuing to engage in a "pattern and
Other legal actions have been filed in Pennsylvania, Florida,
North Carolina. Police officials everywhere deny racial profiling.
Why, then, are so many more African American motorists stopped than
expected by their frequency on the road and their violation of the
seems clear to me that drugs are the issue.
The notion that African Americans and other minorities are more
whites to be carrying drugs--a notion that is perpetuated by some
training films--seems to be especially prevalent among the police.
believe that if they are to interdict drugs, then it makes sense to
minorities, especially young men. State police are rewarded and
least partially on the basis of their "criminal programs," which
number of arrests they make. Testimony in the New Jersey case
that troopers would be considered deficient if they did not make
arrests. Since, as Judge Francis found, training points to
likely drug dealers, it makes a certain sort of distorted sense to
minorities more than whites.
But there is no untainted evidence that minorities are more likely to
possess or sell drugs. There is evidence to the contrary. Indirect
in statistics from the National Institute of Drug Abuse indicates
percent to 14 percent of those who abuse drugs are African American, a
percentage that is proportionate to their numbers in the general
More telling are the numbers of those people who are stopped and
the Maryland State Police who have drugs. This data, which has been
unobtainable from other states, indicates that of those drivers and
passengers searched in Maryland, about 28 percent have contraband,
they are black or white. The same percentage of contraband is found no
matter the race.
The Maryland data may shed some light on the tendency of some
believe that blacks are somehow more likely to possess contraband.
shows that for every 1,000 searches by the Maryland State Police,
and only 80 non-blacks are arrested. This could lead one to believe
more blacks are breaking the law--until you know that the sample is
skewed. Of those searched, 713 were black and only 287 were non-black.
We do not have comparable figures on contraband possession or
New Jersey. But if the traffic along I-95 there is at all similar to
Maryland--and there is a strong numerical basis to believe it is--it
possible to speculate that that blacks travelers in New Jersey also
more likely than non-blacks to be carrying contraband.
The fact that a black was 16.5 times more likely than a non-black to
arrested on the New Jersey Turnpike now takes on added meaning.
the assumption that was shown accurate in Maryland, it is possible
even more conclusively that racial profiling is prevalent there and
there is no benefit to police in singling out blacks.