Anecdotal experience suggests that race matters when you get behind the wheel: minority drivers are more likely to get stopped and pulled over by police than white drivers.
A group of law students at Seton Hall University in New Jersey recently tested that conventional wisdom. When New Jersey police officers issue a traffic ticket, they are required to fill out driver's name, age, eye color, residence, license plate, and so on, but are not required to record their race or ethnicity. Determining whether tickets were being issued disproportionately to black or Latino drivers meant that the researchers had to collect that data themselves. They spent four weeks last October sitting in on traffic court hearings in Bloomfield, a small township in New Jersey.
The hearings take place twice a day. Researchers sat in on about 70 hours of hearings and observed 855 ticketed individuals, according to their report. During their observations, they made note of the ethnicity, age, gender, and area of residence for each person who showed up.
Bloomfield is an affluent, predominantly white suburb that lies northwest of Newark. CNN Money once deemed it "one of the best places to live" due to low crime rates, and it's been described as the kind of town that evokes a particular kind of American sentimentality — duck crossing signs, picnicking families, ice cream parlors, and little chapels with green lawns.
The selection of the town was fairly random, according to Mark Denbeaux, the professor who led the study out of the law school's Center for Policy and Research, which he directs. Students wanted to look closely at a border town, meaning one that is surrounded by a variety of demographics, and one that was easily accessible from Seton Hall.
'Black men have to sit there and eat shit.'
Just south of Bloomfield lies East Orange, which is over 88 percent black, and Newark, which is 53 percent black and 34 percent Latino. Newark and East Orange are ranked the fifth and sixth poorest towns in New Jersey, respectively. Bloomfield's other bordering towns — Glen Ridge, Nutley, Clifton, Montclair, and Belleville — are almost entirely white, and relatively affluent.
The researchers found that black and Latino drivers were being disproportionately ticketed, accounting for 78 percent of court appearances for traffic violations despite comprising roughly 43 percent of Bloomfield's population. Drawing on a database of tickets issued by Bloomfield Police between September 2014 and August 2015, they determined that almost 84 percent of 7,110 traffic tickets with verifiable addresses had occurred in the areas around East Orange and Newark.
Denbeaux was an active participant in the civil rights movement of the 1960's — he marched on Washington, founded an NAACP chapter in Wooster, Ohio, marched in Selma, Alabama for voting rights in 1965, and has represented members of the Black Panther party. He said that the center's report was inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, which caught fire in 2014 after several unarmed black men died in high-profile encounters with police.
When a white police officer shot down 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, a suburb of St. Louis, locals immediately suspected foul play and protests roiled the area for weeks. Angry demonstrations were met with camouflage-clad police who patrolled the neighborhood in armored vehicles, dispersing crowds with rubber bullets. Protests reignited months later when a grand jury declined to indict the officer involved.
The public's distrust of law enforcement in Ferguson was palpable, and a subsequent investigation by the Department of Justice showed why. The resulting report determined that "implicit and explicit" racial bias pervaded almost every aspect of the city's justice system, and that black Ferguson residents endured intrinsically discriminatory police and court practices.
'I don't see the difference between what the Bloomfield police system is doing and what Ferguson is doing.'
The DOJ uncovered a pattern of racial bias from traffic stops to courtroom summonses, trapping residents in a cycle of indebtedness. Black residents make up 67 percent of Ferguson's population, but according to the DOJ, they experienced 85 percent of all traffic stops and 90 percent of citations.
"Officers routinely conduct stops that have little relation to public safety and a questionable basis in law," the report stated, noting that the system seemed calculated to maximize revenue via traffic enforcement.
Denbeaux and the students wanted to know how many more Fergusons there were out there.
"I think what really shocked me is, I don't see the difference between what the Bloomfield police system is doing and what Ferguson is doing," he said.
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Denbeaux says institutionalized racism hasn't gone away; it's just changed shape since the 1960s.
"In Selma, racism was the wolf at the door," he said. "Police were beating black people. Now in the north, it's termites in the floor. It's everywhere. It's everywhere, but you can't put your finger on it."
Quietly discriminatory law enforcement practices like traffic ticketing impacts the daily lives of blacks and Latinos, but you rarely hear about them. One of the problems with the Black Lives Matter movement, Denbeaux remarked, is that it "erupts when a tragedy happens and then calms down. There's nothing to stop the underlying problem."
According to the data set, a Bloomfield traffic ticket costs $137 on average. The Seton Hall researchers' calculations suggest that black and Latino drivers would have paid over $1 million to Bloomfield Municipal Court between 2014 and 2015, with Newark and East Orange residents coughing up about $400,000 of the total. The court's budgeted salaries were projected to have more than doubled from $350,600 to more than $760,000 within the same span.
Tickets incur negative points on your license. If you get too many negative points, you can potentially lose your driving license. Losing your driving license can affect your employment, depending on where you live. Tickets can also affect your car insurance premiums as well as your credit score, which in turn impacts your ability to borrow money.
Watch the VICE News documentary Driving While Black
The Bloomfield Police Department started collecting data on the race of drivers in traffic stops as of this past January. When asked about the Seton Hall report, Bloomfield Police Director Sam DeMaio described the racial breakdown of the town's traffic stops as split pretty evenly across the board. "We're at 1,814 motor vehicle stops for the year so far, and 576 are Hispanic, 573 white, and 574 African-American," DeMaio said.
But those numbers aren't proportional to the demographics of Bloomfield itself, which is roughly 60 percent white, 24.5 percent Latino, and 18.5 percent African-American. They also reflect traffic stops rather than tickets, leaving open the possibility that police officers are more likely to issue tickets to black or Latino drivers during a stop while letting white drivers off the hook.
If an officer pulls you over, they usually expect you to cooperate with them, no matter how unwarranted their decision to stop you was. If black or Latino drivers know that they are more likely to be ticketed regardless of their behavior, that can have some bearing on how smoothly an interaction between a motorist and officer goes.
"Black men have to sit there and eat shit," Denbeaux said. "It's incredibly unfair."
Researchers were able to identify other patterns to the way tickets were being handed out. For example, they discovered a higher volume of tickets being written on specific routes leading from East Orange into Bloomfield. "Bloomfield Police policing patterns suggest a de facto 'border patrol'," Seton Hall researchers wrote in their report. "By stopping and ticketing those who cross into Bloomfield from East Orange and Newark, the police are effectively deterring African Americans and Latinos from entering Bloomfield altogether."
DeMaio is adamant that this is not the case, and attributes the high concentration of traffic tickets to overall crime rates in those areas.
"There is no racial profiling in Bloomfield at all. If you look at the areas that the activity takes place are the areas in our township where criminal activity is taking place, we deploy our personnel based on where the crime is taking place," DeMaio said, explaining a policing strategy that stations officers in crime hotspots.
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In 1999, New Jersey State Police admitted to racially profiling drivers, and entered into a five-year consent decree with the Department of Justice to clean up its act. In response, criminologists Michael Maxfield and George Kelling from Rutgers University wrote a report titled "New Jersey Police and Stop Data: What Do We Know, What Should We Know and What Should We Do?" that teased out possible alternatives used to explain disproportionate numbers of stops beyond racial profiling.
One argument, the "coincidence hypothesis," is in keeping with DeMaio's explanation: that maybe more black and Latino drivers are stopped because they are more likely to use a particular route that happens to be heavily policed.
The DOJ led a three-year long investigation into the Newark Police Department after the American Civil Liberties Union published a report alleging rampant misconduct and insufficient internal oversight among NPD officers. In addition to other findings, the DOJ concluded that the NPD was stopping "black individuals at a greater rate than it stops white individuals" and "as a result, black individuals in Newark bear the brunt of NPD's pattern of unconstitutional stops and arrests."
The DOJ raised the coincidence hypothesis as a possible explanation. "Having more intense police patrols in these areas could be a source of bias or it could simply be the police department's response to crime in the neighborhood," its report noted.
Another widely discredited hypothesis, the "behavioral difference," suggests that police disproportionately stop minority motorists because they don't drive very well or drive differently.
"People say, well, inner city people are poor," Denbeaux remarked. "Their cars are crummy. They're not good drivers." Those theories don't hold up, he went on, because black or Latino residents of more affluent or predominantly white areas were also disproportionately ticketed. Though the pool was smaller, due to the low numbers of tickets issued in those areas, the same ratio held to be true elsewhere in Bloomfield and its affluent, white border towns. For all 39 individuals from Bloomfield's white border towns that Seton Hall researchers observed in court, 64 percent of them were minorities and 33 percent were white.
After the DOJ probed Newark's policing practices and found that they "harmed residents" and "eroded trust," Newark agreed to retrain its officers on use of force, stops, and searches, require most of them to wear body cameras, and equip all patrol cars with dash cams.
While the DOJ isn't able to dissect the policing and court practices of every town in America, Denbeaux hopes that his center's report might inspire other law students or groups elsewhere in the country to carry out similar observations of seemingly mundane law enforcement or court practices in other towns.
"Sitting in a courtroom recording basic facts could have a huge impact," he said. "Turns out, racial profiling is pervasive in more ways than anyone wants to imagine."
Follow Tess Owen on Twitter: @misstessowen