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A story about democracy, told through 20 million traffic stops

32 minutes
Frank Baumgartner

The lights flash in your rearview mirror as the police car comes up behind you. A sinking feeling forms in the pit of your stomach as the officer approaches. Sound familiar?  However, this is where the story can differ greatly depending on who you are and where you live. If you’re African-American or Latino, you are much more likely to be searched or have your vehicle searched — and much more likely to be pulled over in the first place, according to research conducted by analyzing data from millions traffic stops in North Carolina over more than a decade.

Frank Baumgartner, Robert J. Richardson Distinguished Professor of Political Science at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, lead the team that analyzed the data published the book Suspect Citizens: What 20 Million Traffic Stops Tell Us About Policing and Race.” In the book, Frank and his colleagues make the case that an empathy gap exists between people with political and social power and the people who are most likely to be pulled over. The result is that segments of the population who are already disenfranchised become even more distrustful of the police and the government and less likely to vote and otherwise engage with democracy.

We’ve long heard that racially-motivated police violence is the result of a few “bad apple” officers. However, the data from North Carolina show a much more pervasive suspicion from police officers about young men of color. Combined with a move toward what Frank describes as “risk management” policing, the result is a clear pattern of behavior that has direct implications on democratic participation.

P.S. A huge thank you to everyone who supported us in the 2018 Podcast Awards. We are incredibly humbled and grateful to have won during our first year.

More Information

Suspect Citizens: What 20 Million Traffic Stops Tell Us About Policing and Race

Frank’s profile on the Scholars Strategy Network

Discussion/Reflection Questions
  • Do you believe that there is racial bias in policing in America?
  • Based on your own experience with law enforcement, do you trust the police?
  • Do your interactions with law enforcement impact your view of the government and your willingness to engage in democracy?
  • Do you think the aim of police should be to solve crime or try to prevent crime?
  • Do you think policing in America is getting better? Why or why not?
Interview Highlights [3:41] How did you come about the data for this book?

Frank: An investigative reporter in North Carolina conducted an investigation into possible racial profiling in the police department in 1996. This was also a time when people were becoming growingly concerned with racial profiling by police. At this time, North Carolina became the first state to mandate the recording of data about traffic stops, including the race of the individual stopped. I was then invited to look at the information they had collected in the early 2000s as part of a task force.

[5:25] Can you walk us through how a traffic stop experience might differ along racial lines?

Frank: As a middle class white man myself, I have very few interactions with the police. But when I do, it is always very respectful and by the book. It is extremely rare for someone in this demographic to get pulled over by the police. For someone of color, it would be frustratingly common. These traffic stops usually lead to no citation or ticket. However, such stops are more likely to extend into a search of the vehicle.

[6:54] What did you find to be the cause of this variance in frequency and nature of stops?

Frank: We think party of the problem is that police officers are usually dealing with a low information situation when making a stop. Too often, they rely on visual cues to evaluate whether someone is a threat or not. And under the law, which has been confirmed mostly by middle class white men, it assumes that these stops will only be temporary inconveniences. However, as the data showed, these stops are not that uncommon. There is also an empathy gap where white people have a difficult time understanding the situation faced by minorities in terms of traffic stops.

[9:18] In the book you refer to “risk management policing.” Can you explain what that is?

Frank: In the 1960s the focus of policing used to be reactionary in the sense that they used to simply work to solve crimes. However, there has been a shift where as police now are working to try to prevent crimes using methods such as profiling. Policing is now more proactive and aggressive. This system didn’t happen to white people. This happened on the other side of town to minorities. It happened to people who themselves were seen as likely criminal elements.

[14:24] What impact do these stop rates have on the level of democratic participation among minorities?

Frank: Just a single traffic stop can reduce the odds of that person voting by as much as ten percent. We found that in areas where black people have greater political power, the percentage of blacks that are stopped is considerably lower. There is a national effect. Unjustified stops do alienate people and cause them to not trust the government. In Fayetteville North Carolina, they instituted some policy changes. What resulted was that there were fewer stops. Also, the number of calls to 911 that actually resulted in a crime being committed went up. This showed that people who were no longer being wrongfully stopped began to trust the police more and were willing to reach out to them when they actually needed them.

[18:21] We often hear during the more salient cases that this is simply the result of a few “bad apple” officers. Is this the case or is this a more systemic problem impacting more officers?

Frank: The short answer is that it’s both. In our research, we were able to categorize and study the stop of every officer by their badge number. We did find many officers who showed trends of discriminatory trends in stops. The racial disparity were highest amongs men. While there are bad apple officers, there also is a more systemic problem.

[22:20] What impacts have your findings led to?

Frank: Many police leaders have started looking at their own statistics more closely. When these departments have done this internal investigation they have often found that they have discrimination problems. Ferguson, Missouri is just one example. While Ferguson is seen as the epicenter of bad policing, the situation in many others communities is not really that much better. We have to recognize that the data and the patterns are clear and consistent. It is time to question whether we are getting the right bang for our buck out of the random traffic stops as a mechanism to fight crime. This is alienating people without having much good to show for it.

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