Pennsylvania State Police traffic stop study finds some disparity in who gets searched, and who is found with contraband
When acting on their own discretion, Pennsylvania State Police are more likely to search Black and Hispanic drivers than white drivers, according to an independent study by the National Policing Institute.
State Police commissioned the study and unveiled key takeaways Tuesday.
The institute found Black drivers were nearly two times more likely than white drivers to be searched for discretionary reasons during traffic stops and Hispanic drivers were 1.3 times more likely. Engel said the report was not able to determine if those disparities were due to bias.
The report says discretionary searches include those that are based on reasonable suspicion, probable cause, or consent. Non-discretionary searches would happen when a trooper is required to search a vehicle, such as when a driver is being arrested, or the trooper has seen evidence of a crime in plain view.
Robin Engel, Senior Vice President of the National Policing Institute, said this is a “moderate effect in terms of its level of significance,” because discretionary searches make up less than three percent of all traffic stops.
State police do not ask drivers to identify their racial and ethnic background, but they do note their perception of the driver’s race. And so, the analysis is based on what race the troopers thought the drivers were.
Though Black and Hispanic drivers were more likely to be searched for discretionary reasons, white drivers were more likely to be found with illegal contraband, such as drugs and drug paraphernalia. The rate of seizures of contraband were higher in consent searches that involved white drivers, which was roughly 52%. The rate of seizure in consent searches involving Black and Hispanic was 41.5% and 32.9%, respectively.
In general, of all 12,236 stops that led to searches, 53.6% resulted in seizure of contraband
The report says 46.1% of seizures were drugs, though it does not specify what kind.
“This is incredibly high,” Engel said. “Most agencies that I see across the country have search and seizure or seizure rates anywhere from 20 to 30-35%. This is in fact one of the highest success rates for searches that I have seen in the country.”
State Police started collecting traffic stop data in 2002, but stopped doing so in 2011. The agency began collecting data again in 2021.
“The data shows our department has made great progress in these outcomes over the years, and we’re proud of the work our troopers continue to do,” Colonel Christopher Paris, Commissioner of the PSP.
The report offers some recommendations to State Police, including improving the collection of data by including more fields in the form troopers fill out during a stop. This could be indicating whether consent for search was requested and specifying the primary and secondary reasons for the stop. The report also recommends improving accountability and oversight of how police officers behave during traffic stops, especially during stops that could result in a consent search.
Paris said the agency is trying to implement more complex statistical analysis methods in order to capture more data.
“The more data that we have, perhaps the more explainable some disparities may be,” Paris said.
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