New Evidence of Racial Profiling on Florida Roadways

Updated Below

Sam Dubose. Walter Scott. Sandra Bland. 2015 showed in terrible and vivid detail how even routine police traffic stops carry the risk of escalating to arrest or the use of force — even lethal force. Traffic stops are not simply innocuous encounters. They can be deadly, particularly for Black people.

When evidence suggests that certain communities are targeted for traffic stops because of their race or ethnicity, we need to take heed. Today the ACLU is releasing a report providing just that. “Racial Disparities in Florida Safety Belt Law Enforcement” is the first report to analyze publicly available seat belt citation data reported by law enforcement agencies across the state to the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles in 2014 and 2011. 

Take 2014, for instance. According to state data, law enforcement officers with 147 different agencies statewide collectively stopped and ticketed Black motorists for seat belt violations at a rate nearly double that of white motorists. The report also identifies specific agencies whose enforcement of seat belt requirements has resulted in racial disparities that exceeded or met the already large statewide disparities.

The numbers speak for themselves.

  • Black motorists were stopped and cited for seat belt offenses four times more often than white motorists by the Escambia County Sheriff’s Office in 2011 — almost double the statewide racial disparity for that year.
  • In 2014, Black motorists were stopped and cited for seat belt offenses three times more often than white motorists by the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office, 2.8 times more often than white motorists by the Orange County Sheriff’s Office, and 1.9 times more often than white motorists by the Broward County Sheriff’s Office. (The 2014 statewide racial disparity was 1.9.)

These findings are a red flag. They raise the distinct possibility that law enforcement agencies across Florida are racially profiling Black people for seat belt enforcement. 

Why? No state or national study documents differences in seat belt non-use between white and Black motorists in Florida as dramatic as the racial disparities in seat belt citation rates identified in the report. 

2014 study by the Florida Department of Transportation found that white and Black people in the study wore seat belts at closely comparable rates — 91.5 percent for whites and 85.8 percent for Blacks.  These statistics call into question the argument that Black motorists in Florida were stopped and ticketed for seat belt offenses at nearly double the rate of whites in 2014 simply because they failed to obey seat belt requirements at higher rates.

The disproportionate stopping and ticketing of any racial or ethnic group for seat belt enforcement causes real harm. Communities that are targeted by police for low-level offenses — whether intentionally or not — feel unfairly stigmatized as criminals because of who they are and not what they have done. Seat belt tickets also carry fines that can burden people with debts they cannot afford to pay — a particular problem for Black people because of the well-documented racial wealth gap. And because even routine traffic stops can tragically escalate, communities that are disproportionately targeted for seat belt stops face a greater risk of harm simply because they are stopped more often.  Finally, communities that are stopped and ticketed more often may view the agents of the criminal justice system as less legitimate, which hurts efforts to improve public safety.

In 2015, Walter Scott and Samuel Dubose were shot and killed by police officers in South Carolina and Cincinnati following traffic stops for minor traffic infractions (driving a car with a broken taillight and driving a car missing a front license plate, respectively). Also in 2015, Sandra Bland was pulled over in Prairie View, Texas, for a minor traffic violation that escalated, leading to her arrest, jailing, and subsequent death. In 2014, Arthur Green Jr., a diabetic man, died in the custody of Tampa Police Department officers following a traffic stop in which he was handcuffed.

Florida law enforcement agencies and oversight authorities need to study the findings of our report and take measures to ensure that the Florida Safety Belt Law is enforced fairly and equally. Because when Florida officers tell Black motorists that they were pulled over for a seat belt violation, the last thing drivers should worry about is their skin color. State data, however, give Black motorists cause to believe that perhaps all seat belt violations aren’t created equally in Florida.

Update (2/5/2016)

This post was updated to incorporate information from the amended report released on February 1, 2016.  The amendments clarify our statements and do not alter the overall conclusions or recommendations of the report.

Although the 2014 study by the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) reported differences in seat belt use (and therefore non-use) in white and Black people observed in the study, it did not estimate rates of seat belt use or non-use for white and Black resident motorists across Florida. Nevertheless, even if we ignore the problems in translating the study results to race differences at the state level, there is a less than 1 in 1,000 chance that the racial disparity in seat belt non-use of those observed in the study (1.67) accounts for the statewide racial disparity in seat belt citations seen here (1.85 to 1.9), much less the larger racial disparities in local practices identified in the report — for example, 2.83 to 3.10 (Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office), 3.88 to 4.22 (Escambia County Sheriff’s Office). This finding calls into question the argument that Black motorists were stopped and ticketed for seat belt offenses across Florida and by particular agencies at such high rates simply because they failed to obey seat belt requirements at higher rates. 

As noted in pages 29-30 of the report, based on information available at this time, any differences in racial groups’ exposure to law enforcement cannot explain the observed racial disparities in citation rates. We are not aware of any information about where Black and white motorists in Florida drive, how those locations link to police deployments, or the total miles driven by each group, which could impact law enforcement exposure.  Further, U.S. Census data on vehicles per person show that vehicle access was lower for Black motorists as compared to white motorists in Florida in 2014, which suggests that Black motorists drove fewer total miles than white motorists that year and that the observed statewide racial disparity in seat belt citation rates may be a low estimate.

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m.badal@genesis...

Well you assholes better get on it

Winston Luo

Ms. Chaudry,

Thank you for your hard work in working to shed light on a very important issue in the country. However, there is a fundamental flaw in the logic of this report. Such an error detracts from the overall credibility of your study; by pointing it out, I hope only to establish a better understanding of the situation, not to make commentary on whether our system needs reform (personally, I believe it does).

The issue is that Finding #4 is incorrect, given the other information in the report. If white drivers wear seat belts at a rate of 91.5%, and black drivers wear seat belts at a rate of 85.8%, then in a world where police officers ticketed motorists of all races equally, then we should expect black drivers to be ticketed 1.67 times more often than white drivers. This is relatively close to the observed 1.9 times more often that they are ticketed.

This is because the proper rates to compare are really the rate of motorists not wearing seat belts, not the rates of motorists wearing seat belts. According to the FDOT data, white motorists violate the seat belt law 8.5% of the time, and black motorists violate it 14.2% of the time. My ratio of 1.67 is obtained by dividing 14.6 by 8.5. (There are plenty of other factors here to consider: How often do people of each race drive? Does the time of day that they are driving matter? And of course, there are error bounds on the FDOT study.)

In any case, the reality here is that the observed ratio of black drivers being ticketed 1.9 times more often than white drivers could plausibly be explained by the aforementioned differences in behavior. The statement that blacks would have to wear seat belts at a rate 45 percentage points lower than whites to explain the observed differences in ticketing rate is factually incorrect, because the relevant quantity is the rate of not wearing a seat belt, not the rate of wearing a seat belt.

There is still perhaps data here to support your claim -- after all, 1.67 is still less than 1.9, but it would be irresponsible to use the data that you have presented to support the statement that the observed 1.9 times higher ticketing rate is wildly out of line with the underlying data.

Again, I want to reiterate that I generally agree with you that our criminal justice system has many many necessary improvements to be made. However, the arguments that you present in this report do not substantiate this position. I'd recommend looking a bit more closely at the data and perhaps holding off on disseminating this study before you do so.

Please let me know if you have any questions.

Winston Luo
wluo@post.harvard.edu

Anonymous

I think there is an error in the way this report treats the racial disparity at the state level. Seat belt usage rates among Black and white motorists are broadly similar (85.8% of Black motorists vs. 91.5% of white motorists), but there is a significant difference when you consider only the people who do not wear seat belts. That population yields a much higher ratio of 1.67 (14.2% of Black motorists vs. 8.5% of white motorists), which would suggest a smaller (but perhaps still significant) racial disparity. 

Anonymous

Blacks make up slightly less than 16% of the Florida population. Whites make up slightly less than 78%. If you look at actual numbers of white/vs black offenders, as opposed to percentages, there's a huge disparity. I did some rough figures based on 2010 census data (and 2014 projections by the US census) and here's what I got.

White drivers:12381588
Black drivers: 2673659

White offenders: 1052434
Black offenders: 379659

So we're talking about a group that numbers slightly more than a third of the other that is accounting for nearly double the tickets the other was issued. Pretty sobering when you think about it.

Tom Singer

In response to Anonymous above me, the claim isn't that black people are receiving twice the number of tickets, but that they are being ticketed at nearly twice the rate. In other words, if out every 1000 white people between 15-85 who live in homes with access to a car, 10 get tickets, then out of every 1000 black people between 15-85 who live in homes with access to a car, 20 get tickets.

Of course, as has been pointed out numerous times, and as Ms. Choudhury continues to ignore, the important comparison is not between the total population of white and black drivers, but between the white and black drivers who don't wear seat belts. At this point, after having it pointed out to her by multiple people, she has amended her report to remove the explicitly incorrect statement that black drivers would have to wear seat belts at a rate half that of white drivers to be ticketed twice as often. But she continues to frame the report in terms of a comparison out of total drivers, ignoring the fact that the difference in seat belt use rates explains the majority of the discrepancy in the rate she is calculating, and ignoring the fact that small errors in the use rate, and local variability in the use rate, may explain the rate quite easily.

Now, she's gotten a bit closer - she's amended this blog post to acknowledge the expected 1.67 rate based on seat belt non-use. But she then compares the error in the ticketing rate for an extrapolation from the observed to the population to the *observed* seat belt use rate, ignoring the error in the seat belt use rate, which is much larger in comparison.

It's looking deceitful.

Anonymous

When the symptom of racism appears, the ultimate solution is "education". We may not be able to rehabilitate all racists but we can educate the next generation.

Educating the children in racist localities, their parents and even some police officers. Jane Elliott created one of the best documentaries ever produced titled "Blue Eyes Brown Eyes" which would be a great education for the symptom of racism.

Anonymous

For 200 years, whites have taken a pass on jail time, because whites ran the judicial and policing system. Now, there is an effort to "smoothe" prison populations by arresting more whites. How it is being done; cumputer crime. In 1996 or so, someone in DOD uploaded a hard drive's worth of CP onto file trading networks. The next part of the plan was to conflate penalties for the non-violent mainly white affluent perusers of this genre in a similar fashion as was done the penalties for Heroin distribution and sale among black offenders. They assigned higher penalties for crack cocaine, of which low income blacks were the usual offenders, than heroin piull poppers, who were affluent white, monied offenders. So blacks and whites, though both offended similarly, did different prison sentences. Then they changed the language of penalization of KP offenders to conflate "Production" of it in a manner so as to make it appear that someone who downloaded it was the same, categorically, as the person actually taking the original photo or record of whatever sort. So non-violent white offenders were and still are subject to hundreds of years in prison for downloading it, having never actually had contact with the original victim. In the same breath, Obama reclassifies the powder crack and pill pushers to be the same, eliminating a sub-class of over-penalized blacks, who were then given commutes based on the new laws. Suddenly, there began to be more whites newly incarcerated than blacks, so as to give the appearance to the world that the US was becoming more racially fair in the eyes of justice. Yet still, people like Dennis Hastert, who wrote the laws giving downloaders harsher sentences than actual abusers, are given lesser sentences as rapists simply because they didn't download anything. Rapists walk in 10 years, downloaders are imprisoned forever, and a day. That is the new racial fairness. Vaseline, anyone? Brother Hastert???

MPower-Man

Miami Shores Village has a long history of racial bias in their policing, code enforcement, and council make-up. Pulling over non-whites in areas where there are more white residents is just one tactic. They also don't patrol areas where non-whites live in larger numbers as frequently as areas predominantly populated by whites.

The village further discourages non-whites from moving into the area with unequal and unfair code enforcement. Most whites will only get cited for absent or expired building permits. However, most non-whites are cited for aesthetic violations that stem from strict interpretations of broadly-worded ordinances (dirt on wall; faded exterior paint; lawns presumed too high; vegetable gardens; etc.) The code enforcement board will rubber stamp all of these violations and impose liens in order to make the cost of living too expensive for non-white or non-affluent residents.

All of this creates a hostile living environment for non-white residents and visitors. Miami Shores still prides itself on maintaining Segregation Era values.

Heather Spoonheim

The analysis here is terrible - not nearly complete. You quote the rate at which blacks/whites do not wear seatbelts but fail to then apply that to the ratio of black/white drivers to produce a statistical representation of white/black non-seatbelt wearing drivers. Without that number, the ratio between black/white citations is meaningless. Others here have crunched a bit more and shown that perhaps your final result is still representative - but only by chance. Before a charge of racism, one should really ensure they've done their homework - otherwise the charge might be debunked and only make the accuser appear inept.

Anonymous

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