After watching the dash-cam video of the shooting of Philando Castile by police officer Geronimo Yanez, I was extremely shocked at the composure and calmness of the late Castile and his girlfriend Diamond Reynolds whilst the trained police officer sounded and acted very much uncontrolled and panicked. This one incident, which has been watched many times over the past year, is really sad and concerning. As a black man I have been stopped many times usually for some traffic infraction and usually get a ticket and occasionally a warning. One of the few times when I got a warning was when I was stopped in s situation similar to the Castile killing. In 2004 a white officer in LaGrange Park, IL stopped me for speeding. I was then driving with my wife while my stepdaughter slept in the back seat. I cannot say why I received a warning on that day whilst Mr. Castile ended up getting shot. That was the first time I received a warning rather than a ticket for a traffic offence. Maybe it was because nobody had reported a burglary when I was stopped or because I did not report I was carrying a licensed firearm or just maybe my cop was a lot more experienced than Geronimo Yanez and realized that a black man or for that matter any man with his family is less likely to create a situation that could put his family in danger. Another factor may be the neighborhood, maybe Falcon Heights, MN was just more exclusively white than La Grange Park, IL and as such a black person in Falcon Heights would garner more suspicion than in La Grange Park. I have discussed this issue with a lot of people, most of them being black like myself and the consensus was that Philando Castile died for only one basic reason, he was driving while black.
This is a situation while being common and easily identified has roots that go so deep that we continue to have problems with this irrespective of the extensive training given to cops. There have been many other incidents involving cops and unarmed black people usually men, that suggests that just training is not enough. Blacks in America have dealt with a lot over the centuries from slavery to institutionalized racism and Jim Crow laws. Today we are dealing with racial prejudice and a more insidious cancer; implicit racial bias. The problem with dealing with implicit bias is the fact that the person acting out this behavior directed by his or her biases fails to recognize that their actions are based on racial bias. In a recent episode of the podcast Invisibilia a white man who had an adopted black daughter reports catching himself act in a way that he had warned his daughter she may be treated just because of her race . This gentleman realized what he was doing because he is the father of a minority child and re-evaluated his actions. In the real world unfortunately most of us just act out our biases without any thought of what we are doing. When asked if we acted that way because of race we would most probably genuinely say no.
On account of the multiple traffic stops with disastrous outcomes involving minorities Stanford University started a project called The Open Policing Project to study this problem. Since 2015 the program began requesting data on police traffic stops from across the country. To date, the project has collected and standardized more than 100 million records of traffic stops and search data from 31 states. Twenty states provided enough detail in their data to allow statistical analysis to determine racial bias in policing. The findings of this project that I present below is based on data from sixteen states; Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, Massachusetts, Montana, North Carolina, New Jersey, Ohio, South Carolina, Texas, Vermont, Washington and Wisconsin does suggest some racial bias policing. The Open Policing Project data suggest that Blacks tend to get stopped more often than Whites whilst Hispanic are stopped at about the same rates as whites (see the graph below).
Figure 1 – STOP RATES BY RACE
The researchers also went on to look at search rates after a stop and in this case it appears that both Blacks and Hispanics motorists who were stopped were much more likely to be searched compared to whites. This can be clearly seen in the graph below in Figure 2 showing that white motorist were searched in less than 6% of stops with the exception of one outlier whilst Blacks and Hispanic searches ranged all the way up to 10% of stops.
Figure 2 – SEARCH RATES BY RACE
The above graph though did not account for what factors cops were using to determine whom to search. It is possible as in the case of Trayvon Martin who was deemed suspicious by John Zimmerman because he was wearing a hoodie that the black and Hispanic motorist just plain appeared more ‘shady’ if I should use the term than their white counterparts. To account for that the researchers used a threshold test, which is a modification of a model, proposed by Gary Becker an economist for studying racial bias in policing in the 1950s. This model used the interplay between search rates and positive search outcomes to infer a threshold for search used by officers. When this test was applied to the data it suggested that tens of thousands of searches of minority motorists would be avoided if traffic cops used the same standards for searching whites as they did for minorities. As can be seen in the graph below White search thresholds are definitely higher than Black and Hispanic search thresholds.
Figure 3 – SEARCH THRESHOLD BY RACE
There is always going to be a lot of debate on this issue because other studies done looking at racial bias in policing failed to find any bias. Overall though most people of color and some whites will tell you they do not need any fancy analysis to know that there is bias or discrimination involved in policing. The negative impact of these biases and discrimination can be very clearly seen in cases such as Philando Castile or Sandra Bland who ended up dead after such a stop. For a large majority of motorists though these stops may be just a nuisance. What however needs to be addressed is the fact that on account of ingrained or implicit bias our law enforcement machinery is being used as a tool for racial discrimination against minorities. This is something that has to be addressed by specifically by our justice system and the society at large.
- National Public Radio (NPR) (Producer).(2017). The Culture Inside: Alix Spiegel [Audio Podcast]. Available from http://www.npr.org/programs/invisibilia/
- The Stanford Open Policing Project 2017, The results of our nationwide analysis of traffic stops and searches. Available from https://openpolicing.stanford.edu/findings/
By Dr. Leonard Sowah, an internal medicine physician in Baltimore, Maryland