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Traffic Stop Study Reveals Widespread Racial Profiling in West Virginia

Seth DiStefano,
ACLU of West Virginia
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July 6, 2009

In February of this year, seven years of work by the ACLU of West Virginia and others came to fruition when the final report of the West Virginia Traffic Stop Study was released. The study was mandated in 2004 through legislative action initiated by the ACLU of West Virginia. Rules on how the study would be conducted were finalized in 2006, and the study itself, meant to track quantifiable categories associated with traffic stops by West Virginia law enforcement, was conducted from April 2007 through September 2008.

The information mandated for collection and tracking included the perceived race of the driver in question, whether a search of the vehicle was performed, and whether the searches yielded any illegal contraband.

During the 18-month period in which the study was conducted, 301,479 traffic stops of WV registered vehicles were accepted for analysis from 348 state, county, and local law enforcement agencies.

And guess what? After seven years of working to address the issue of racial profiling in West Virginia (the first piece of legislation geared toward the topic was introduced in 2002), we can confidently report what everyone concerned about racial profiling in West Virginia has known for a long time: We have a serious problem with law enforcement using race as a criteria to suspect the presence of criminal activity.

To put it bluntly, on a statewide basis, black drivers are over 1 1/2 times (1.68 to be exact) more likely to be pulled over than white drivers. Hispanic drivers are just under 1 1/2 times (1.48) more likely to be pulled over than white drivers.

Some might argue these results don’t prove the existence of racial profiling. Indeed, there could be any number of reasons people get pulled over notwithstanding their race; and if all the information we had were the rates at which minority drivers were pulled over in comparison to that of white drivers, we would not be able to prove much.

Our study went further into law enforcement practices, documenting what happened after a person had been pulled over by police. Specifically, the collection process (as has been the case with other ACLU studies of this kind) documented the vehicles searched, whether any illegal contraband was found, and the authority used to perform said vehicle search (consent versus probable cause.) With the information collected in these categories, those who deny the existence of racial profiling had better buckle their seat belts, because the road of denial gets increasingly bumpy when confronted with the jarringly disproportionate levels at which minorities are targeted for roadside searches in West Virginia.

All told, on a statewide basis, black and Hispanic drivers are nearly 2 1/2 times more likely (2.45 and 2.37 respectively) to be searched once pulled over than white drivers on West Virginia roads. The fact the disproportion not only carries over, but increases from the rate of roadside stops to roadside searches of minority drivers, leaves little wiggle room concerning the existence of racial profiling. It’s here, and it is damaging the credibility of West Virginia law enforcement amongst minority communities across the state.

Not content to just identify a problem, and armed with a grant from the national ACLU’s Racial Justice Program, the ACLU of WV is taking steps to address this issue, hopefully offering a path to its successful resolution in the near future. Our coalition partners include the NAACP of West Virginia, the Community Relations Service of the U.S. Department of Justice, and other organizations. The campaign itself will initially focus its resources on litigation and a statewide public education effort to inform the public of their rights on West Virginia’s roads. In addition, the coalition has also begun engaging law enforcement in discussions on how to affect change that is meaningful. This campaign will not be an exercise in finger-pointing. Ultimately, any success in rectifying the issue of racial profiling within police practices will have to include cooperation from law enforcement.

With the information we have, it is fair to say that racial profiling, as a law enforcement strategy, is a deplorable waste of police resources. In fact, according to the study done here, minority drivers were less likely to have illegal contraband in their vehicles than their white counterparts. It is absolutely in the interest of good police work and the public safety of all West Virginians that racial profiling be brought to an end.

As a native West Virginian, it gives me no pleasure to see the results of this study, as it further perpetuates negative stereotypes of West Virginia I feel do not represent the majority of people here. However, it is heartening to see West Virginians respond to our call pursuing change in law enforcement policy for the better. People are getting involved across the state, wanting to know more about their rights on the road and taking time to hold government officials accountable. It is our hope that the fruits of this campaign will ensure everyone on our state’s roadways will enjoy a level of freedom that includes going for a leisurely drive and not having to worry about being subjected to a humiliating search of your vehicle based on your perceived race.

We are ready for what promises to be an exciting campaign. Stay tuned for future updates.

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