Traffic stops data might be skewed

tony messenger

JEFFERSON CITY With apologies to Cardinals fans, Roy Lucke offers a Sammy Sosa analogy to make a point about the difficulties of talking about race.

Lucke is research director for the Northwestern University Center for Public Safety. For years he's studied traffic stops in Illinois to offer insight into whether law enforcement agencies are profiling minorities.

In his class, he will often put up a slide of Sosa and ask his students a simple question.

"What is he?"

Sosa is black.

But he's also from the Dominican Republic, making him Hispanic in the eyes of the U.S. Census.

So, imagine Sosa gets pulled over by a police officer in Missouri, where the law requires officers to track the race of drivers stopped for traffic offenses.

Which box gets checked?

Either way, whether he's considered black or Hispanic, he's more likely to be searched or arrested after such a stop in Missouri, according to an annual report from the Missouri Attorney General's Office.

And if he's black, he's more likely to be stopped in the first place, the report says.

Blacks have a name for this: Driving While Black. It doesn't take a yearly statistical analysis of traffic stops to convince a black person that he or she is more likely to get pulled over than whites and more likely to be arrested afterward.

"That's just the way it is," says Trina Robinson of Berkeley. "I've seen it a thousand times."

Robinson tells the story of her 20-year-old daughter, Kayla, who got pulled over not long ago driving her mom's car. She didn't get a ticket, but her boyfriend, who had unpaid tickets, got arrested. The car was towed.

She talked of her nephew, who says he got pulled over for "nothing."

The stops may well have been justified, and that's why law enforcement officials react defensively to the release of the annual attorney general's office statistics on traffic stops. There are reasons for the stops, they say. Often, police officers have no idea the color of the person they're pulling over. They see an expired tag, a weave in traffic or a broken taillight.

But the story the numbers tell, Robinson suggests, is manifested in the perceptions of black drivers everywhere.

"It does happen," she says of racial profiling. "And it's not taken seriously."

St. Louis police chief Dan Isom who, like Robinson, is black disagrees that the problem isn't taken seriously. He says his department is disturbed by the increasing disparity in traffic stops in the city between blacks and whites, and he wants to look deeper at the numbers to figure out why the disparity is growing.

Isom recognizes the difficulty of the dilemma of racial profiling. On one hand, he believes there are police officers who are guilty of the practice, and if he can identify them, Isom wants to do something about it.

But he also doesn't want to be too heavy handed.

"We don't want officers to feel like we're inhibiting their ability to do their jobs," Isom said.

So the solution, Isom says, is to dig deeper and look at even more statistics.

Why are they being pulled over?

What makes some cities different than others?

Do population shifts make a difference?

How about poverty?

Indeed, if you look at the disparity numbers in primarily black north St. Louis, for instance, it's whites, not blacks, who are getting pulled over in disparate numbers.

In Berkeley, Northwoods and Pine Lawn, the story is reversed from state averages. In those cities, whites live in the minority, and they are pulled over at higher rates compared to their population.

It's why Northwestern's Lucke, who examines numbers for a living, says that sometimes the numbers lie.

Referring to his Sammy Sosa example, he suggests Missouri's high disparity in traffic stops might be skewed.

"I suspect the black population gets a little over-represented at the expense of the Hispanic," Lucke said.

For a researcher like Lucke, the numbers are important.

But so, too, is a recognition that they just tell part of the story.

The bottom line is that talking about race and studying it is difficult.

Our new president, Barack Obama son of a Kenyan father and white mother helps Lucke make his point.

He puts up a slide of Obama and asks his class.

"What is he?"