Targeting Discriminatory Tickets
Most people occasionally violate traffic laws. They might drive slightly faster than the speed limit, forget to signal once in a while or fail to replace a taillight bulb as soon as it burns out.
The emphasis police agencies put on ticketing these violators varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction.
According to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), however, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) in 1986 began urging police to stop drivers for such violations when the drivers met the DEA's drug courier profile. Because this profile is based mainly on the type of vehicle and the race of the driver, the practice became known as racial profiling.
Several recent studies show that in some parts of the country, police stop minorities at a significantly higher rate than Caucasians, even though the two groups violate traffic laws at almost identical rates.
In the most famous of these studies, John Lamberth of Temple University compared the racial composition of drivers on a stretch of Interstate 95 with that of drivers stopped and searched by Maryland State Police on the same stretch.
Police statistics showed that, although minorities comprised 21 percent of drivers and 22 percent of traffic law violators, about 80 percent of the cars stopped by police were driven by minorities.
Similar studies in New Jersey, North Carolina, Texas, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Florida and Colorado suggest a tendency toward discriminatory traffic stops in those states as well.
And a recent study conducted by David Harris, a University of Toledo law professor, indicates that racial profiling also might be in use in Ohio. Harris compared the traffic citations issued in metropolitan Akron, Columbus, Dayton and Toledo from 1996 to 1998 with the ethnic makeup of those areas and determined that African Americans were ticketed at a higher rate than Caucasians.
In response to this study and to nationwide evidence of racial profiling, Rep. Peter Jones, D-Shaker Heights, has introduced legislation that would require Ohio law enforcement officers to record, among other details, the race of all occupants of vehicles stopped for traffic violations, the alleged infraction, whether a search of the vehicle occurred and the results of that search.
The bill also would require the attorney general to analyze this data and report the results to the General Assembly annually.
Jones thinks that his bill presents a fair, effective method of determining the extent to which racial profiling is used by Ohio police agencies.
"This bill is garnering a tremendous amount of support," said Jones, citing numerous positive newspaper editorials. "It's hard to ignore the viability and propriety of the proposal."
But Lt. John Born, a spokesman for the Ohio State Highway Patrol, thinks that Jones' legislation places an additional burden of extra time spent on paperwork on a force already spread too thin.
In addition, Born said officers already are required to record the race of drivers who receive citations and whose cars are searched, but not that of passengers or of drivers who receive only a warning.
"We voluntarily began collecting race data on citations in 1999," Born said. "We believe that (incidents for which data is being collected) represent 75 to 90 percent of all traffic stops made by our officers."
Born said that this data likely would prove that the state highway patrol does not employ discriminatory traffic stops.
"Our preliminary findings show that there is not a statistically significant difference between citations issued to minority drivers and those issued to Caucasian drivers," Born said.
The police departments of San Diego and San Jose, along with 23 Oregon police agencies, recently announced plans to voluntarily collect race data on traffic stops and present it to outside entities, such as the ACLU and the NAACP, for examination.
But some think Jones' legislation remains necessary because, unlike the state highway patrol, most Ohio police departments do not voluntarily collect race data.
Maybe collecting the data will make everyone pay more attention to this issue.