A Closer Look at Those “Driving While Black” Statistics

by James A. Bacon

When the Commonwealth published its Virginia Community Policing Act traffic-stop database last week, the Richmond Times-Dispatch spun the data this way:

Black drivers are disproportionately stopped and arrested, and they have their cars searched at higher rates than any other race statewide.

Here’s what the RTD could have written:

Black drivers stopped for traffic violations were disproportionately likely to be let go with warnings — or subject to no law enforcement actions at all.

Any fair-minded story would have provided both conclusions and conveyed the complexities and uncertainties in analyzing the data. Instead, the newspaper settled for cherry picking data that supports its ongoing Oppression Narrative. The reporters did not come right out and say that the statistical disparities are attributable to “racism” or “discrimination,” but the implication is clear enough. In contemporary society, statistical disparities are widely deemed to constitute proof.

Before I delve into the data, which covers the year from July 2020 to June 2021, let me be clear about one thing: I am not ruling out racism and/or discrimination as contributing factors to the disproportionate stopping of African-Americans on Virginia roads and highways. Discrimination may be a factor in some jurisdictions, or among some law enforcement personnel. I don’t pre-judge. I await a sober analysis of the data. I am saying that the RTD analysis is methodologically biased, and it recklessly feeds racial grievances and resentments.

Traffic stops and age. Let us start with two indisputable facts:

  1. There is a powerful correlation between age and the likelihood of being pulled for a traffic violation.
  2. The median age of White people in the United States is 44, compared to the 32-year-old median age of Black people.

All other things being equal, because Black motorists are on average younger than White motorists, one would expect Black motorists to commit more driving infractions and, hence, to be stopped at a “disproportionate” rate.

This graph, taken from the state traffic-stop database, shows the distribution of traffic stops by age. I have superimposed red lines showing the median age of White and Black populations in Virginia. Without accounting for that age differential, comparisons between the frequency of Black and White traffic interactions with law enforcement is incomplete and almost meaningless.

Race/ethnicity and behavior. Viewing racial disparities in traffic-stop rates through the prism of law-enforcement racism ignores the possibility that traffic stops might reflect the behavior of drivers, not the police. The database tells us that males are far more likely than females to be stopped — 63% compared to 37%. Are males being discriminated against, or are they more aggressive drivers more likely to attract law-enforcement attention?

Are college graduates more or less likely to violate traffic laws than high school dropouts? Are high-income drivers more or less likely than low-income drivers? Law enforcement does not collect data that allows us to answer those questions. But insofar as education and income are correlated with race, those factors might account for racial differences in traffic stops. Assuming that racial discrimination is the only possible explanation is irresponsible.

Racial/ethnic sub-cultures also may play a role. For example, Asian/Pacific Islanders were stopped only 11,100 times last year — accounting for fewer than 2% of all stops, despite the fact that Asian/PIs comprise 5.6% of Virginia’s population. Should we assume, based on this disparity, that police officers discriminate in favor of Asians? Or are Asians just less likely to violate traffic laws?

Results of stops. It is commonly said that police are more likely to target Blacks for moving violations. I have shown in a previous post that it is all but impossible in most instances to ascertain the race of a driver from a stationary position on the side of the road. If police engage in racial discrimination, either consciously or unconsciously, such behavior will occur after traffic stops are made and the driver’s race identified. In other words, if racial profiling or discrimination is a factor, it will manifest itself in more punitive outcomes.

According to the Community Police Act Data Collection database, 84% of all stops were for traffic violations. The outcomes of those stops can be broken down as follows (in order of leniency to severity):

  • no enforcement action
  • warning
  • citations/summons
  • vehicles searched during a stop
  • arrest

Blacks comprise 20% of Virginia’s population but 30% of all moving traffic violations. If racial discrimination were at play, we would expect Blacks to account for lower percentages of the lenient outcomes (no action, warnings) and higher rates for the punitive outcomes (citations, searches, arrests).

That’s not what we find. To the contrary, Blacks account for 41% of all “no enforcement actions,” and 32% of all warnings. In other words, Blacks were slightly more likely than Whites to be let off the hook. Is it possible that police are bending over backwards to not discriminate?

Blacks accounted for 29% of those given tickets, marginally less than their 30% proportion of all traffic violations; 31% of all vehicles were searched during a stop, marginally higher.

The only comparison in which Blacks fared negatively by a meaningful number were for arrests, a category that comprised a tiny sliver of total traffic encounters. Statewide, police made 16,503 arrests in 2020-21. Of those arrested 37% were Black.

One possible explanation is that police were more likely to approach Black motorists expecting trouble, thus leading to misunderstandings, escalations  and confrontations. Another possible explanation is that Blacks, influenced by popular media reports of “driving while black,” are more likely to respond defensively, thus provoking more aggressive police responses. Perhaps both explanations are at work.

The differential arrest rate is a matter for concern and warrants a closer look. But superficial analyses like that offered by the RTD are no help whatsoever. Indeed, they do a disservice to all Virginians.

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18 responses to “A Closer Look at Those “Driving While Black” Statistics”

  1. there you go using facts again……

  2. Eric the half a troll Avatar
    Eric the half a troll

    “…accounting for fewer than 2% of all stops, despite the fact that Asian/PIs comprise 5.6% of Virginia’s population…”

    The 4% “unknown” probably accounts for some of that discrepancy. There is no “unknown” in the census data.

  3. Eric the half a troll Avatar
    Eric the half a troll

    “If racial discrimination were at play, we would expect Blacks to account for lower percentages of the lenient outcomes (no action, warnings) and higher rates for the punitive outcomes (citations, searches, arrests).”

    If the racial discrimination is happening at the “who should I pull over” stage, you would actually see the opposite. You can not make up charges that don’t exist (well, you can but it is much harder). If blacks and whites have the same rate of actual violations and blacks are pulled over more often, you would see a smaller percentage of the black who are pulled over being charged with an actual offense (i.e., what the data actually shows).

    1. “You can not make up charges that don’t exist.”

      What do you suppose happens? Police randomly pull over Black people (despite evidence that race is impossible to ascertain a high percentage of the time), and then realize there was no basis for a charge, and then let them go?

      Is it not more plausible to think that police pull over people for offenses but decide to exercise discretion depending upon circumstances? (Did the motorist at least slow down before running the stop sign? Was the traffic pattern confusing? Does the motorist express contrition?)

      1. Eric the half a troll Avatar
        Eric the half a troll

        “What do you suppose happens? Police randomly pull over Black people (despite evidence that race is impossible to ascertain a high percentage of the time), and then realize there was no basis for a charge, and then let them go?”

        By targeting pull overs in areas of higher black population, you can target black populations without knowing who is driving each car. Pretty simple, really. The incentive for pulling them over likely is the hope that they will get probable cause for a search. If they don’t have any probable cause then, no, they won’t charge them if they did not (on a comparative percentage basis) actually commit an offense.

        What you are suggesting is that black people are actually more contrite than whites and cops are actually more likely to let them off. I suspect my theory is more likely the case rather than yours.

        1. LarrytheG Avatar

          If law enforcement IS targeting “high crime” areas that “happen ” to be black, I would expect higher arrest rates for crime also. Otherwise, the premise of “high crime” seems pretty bogus.

          Also – now that we’ve “decriminalized” pot, I wonder how many traffic stops will still be done for drug searches.

          The thing is, that folks who are professionals that deal in drugs – are smart enough to NOT drive while black.

      2. This is the crux of the matter. Jim sees leniency by focusing on the ‘letting them go more’ stat, but completely downplays the fact they get arrested more for traffic violations by saying its a “tiny sliver”.

        In looking at the summary data. There were 892,991 events. Of those 32,631 were “No Enforcement Action” or the group getting let go . That’s 3.65%. The arrested group is 16,503 or 1.85%. So 1.85% is a “tiny sliver”, but 3.65% is material enough to draw a strong conclusion?

  4. LarrytheG Avatar

    re: ” If police engage in racial discrimination, either consciously or unconsciously, such behavior will occur after traffic stops are made and the driver’s race identified. ”

    then how is it explained that blacks actually ARE stopped at higher percents ?

    Also – if racial age is at issue, than what is the average age of whites stopped versus blacks stopped? Wouldn’t that confirm (or not) the stated premise?

  5. Ronnie Chappell Avatar
    Ronnie Chappell

    Thanks for posting. The disparity in the number of stops could also be influenced by the assignment of police to high crime neighborhoods. That’s what happened in Washington DC back in the mid 90’s when a Black mayor and a majority Black city council approved a plan proposed by Eric Holder to drive down gun crime by increasing patrols in high crime areas accompanied by aggressive enforcement of traffic laws and searches of stopped vehicles. Murder rates were so bad, the plan was approved despite Holder’s warning that it would disproportionately impact Black residents.

    1. LarrytheG Avatar

      If this is true – wouldn’t it show up in increased charges for criminal behavior?

      In other words, if you’re patrolling high crime areas then you ought to also be catching criminals , right?

      The other thing I would mention is to ask if stopping blacks at higher percentages – has that been a problem for some time or is the feeling, that it just started?

      Has it been a long-standing practice?

      1. Ronnie Chappell Avatar
        Ronnie Chappell

        The program did result in increased charges for criminal behavior. There were thousands of traffic stops, resulting in hundreds of arrests and the removal of hundreds of illegal fire arms from the streets. It drove down gun crime rates. It also resulted in an even greater number of arrests for drug possession, leading to, for example the very large racial disparity in drug arrests that we’ve all read about. For more, read “Locking up our Own” by James Forman.

        1. LarrytheG Avatar

          Then that should show in the statistics, right?

          Maybe I should ask – is dealing with pot considered a “high crime”?

  6. DJRippert Avatar

    Reading through the comments Larry comes the closest to solving this riddle.

    Remember that police departments are mainly judged by the crime rates and the trend of those crime rates. Down is good. Up is bad.

    The first step in reducing crime is to add patrols to high crime areas while accepting that there will be fewer patrols in low crime areas.

    Unfortunately, in America today, high crime areas a re generally poorer areas and Blacks and other minorities tend to be disproportionately represented in poor (i.e. high crime areas).

    So, your odds of being seen driving poorly by the police go up in poor / high crime areas.

    Intelligence fights crime, meaning intelligence like “military intelligence”, G2. Seeing a car in a high crime neighborhood (slightly) roll through a stop sign in a high crime neighborhood gives the police the opportunity to see who is driving the car. Who are the passengers. Who is interacting with whom. Then, just a warning … come to a complete stop next time. In low crime neighborhoods – what’s the point? Trying to figure out which McLean High School students are CRIPS vs BLOODS?

    1. LarrytheG Avatar

      Patrolling in “high crime” areas and making car stops is not that different than “stop & frisk” IMHO and it comes with some problematical aspects depending a lot on how it is done.

      That kind of policing is not without some downsides with the community if it is perceived as more harassment than real crime reduction.

      If there actually is crime reduction, then it would have the support of the community. Otherwise, if it does not, and/or the police see fit to NOT show that it is effective, then it will actually have the opposite effect on that community and they will be hostile to the police.

      It matters a lot how the police actually do interact with the community. Just stopping cars willy-nilly will result in the community fearing the police. Now, some folks might think this is okay, but it’s not. It really is counter-productive to the entire concept of public safety.

      So, it’s not just the number/percent of stops, it’s the result of the stops.

  7. Do not respond aggressively to a traffic stop!

  8. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
    Dick Hall-Sizemore

    Your point about the median age and there probably being more younger Black drivers is a reasonable one However, I did some digging and obtained a breakdown of Virginia population by age and race. In each of the age brackets, the percentage of stops of Black drivers for traffic violations exceeded the percentage of Blacks in that age bracket. The only one that was close was 15-20 year olds. Here is the breakdown for Black drivers:

    15-20–25.5 percent of stops ; 24.8 percent of population
    20–25–33.3 percentof stops; 25.2 percent of population
    25-30–36 percent of stops; 25.5 percent of population
    30-35–34.6 percent of stops; 23.5 percent of population
    35-40–31.3 percent of stops; 21.8 percent of population
    40-45–29.3 percent of stops; 21.2 percent of population

    1. LarrytheG Avatar

      The other thing is the “local” versus state-level aggregation, where it is said that some local police may concentrate on high crime areas.

      I wondered if the State Police stops are included in this data and can be pulled out separate to see how that data compares with non-State Police stops.

      There’s really a lot of data here and to properly analyze it and understand it, IMHO, it would benefit from folks who are professionals at slicing and dicing data.

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