Race, sex, and age drive ticketing
Minorities and men least likely to receive warnings
By Bill Dedman, Globe Correspondent, and Francie Latour, Globe Staff, 7/20/2003
"I assumed I would probably get a ticket," Azzolino recalls.
She seemed due for one. She had already gotten a warning that month in the same town, plus a second warning in Plymouth, and a third one in Palmer, for pushing 55 mph miles per hour in a 35 zone. So when the officer handed her this citation, for going 10 m.p.h. over the limit, she was pleasantly surprised to find only an "X" in the warning box, and to get another friendly reminder to slow down.
With four warnings in three weeks, Azzolino was among the luckiest drivers in the state that month. But as a young, white woman, she also epitomizes a rule of the road in Massachusetts: In the subjective encounter between officer and driver, the difference between a costly ticket and a pain-free warning is closely linked with the race, sex, and age of the driver.
On city boulevards and rural lanes, whites are far more likely than minorities to receive written warnings instead of tickets when stopped for identical traffic offenses, according to a Boston Globe study of newly released state records. And women, especially young women, get breaks that aren't afforded to men. The price tag for this unequal treatment amounts to an estimated $25 million a year in traffic fines and higher insurance premiums.
For a decade, the national debate over racial profiling has focused on raw accounts of indignity: stops for "driving while black," unjustified searches, videotaped beatings. But in Massachusetts, the most routine use of discretion by police - writing a ticket or a warning - points to a subtler side effect: the economic impact on minorities and men, who are hit with traffic fines and insurance surcharges that others avoid.
That there is a pattern of differential treatment is clear.
Statewide, when local police cited drivers for speeding 45 m.p.h. in a 30 m.p.h. zone, the most common offense, whites drove away with a ticket 31 percent of the time, while 49 percent of minorities received a ticket. The figures are based on an analysis of 166,000 tickets and warnings from every police department in the state in a two-month period, April and May of 2001. These were the only months for which the Registry of Motor Vehicles collected all warnings as part of a state-sponsored test for profiling.
When factors of race and sex are considered together, the records reveal a tiered system of ticketing. Local police allow white women to drive faster without penalty, while reserving the harshest treatment for minority men. When drivers went 45 m.p.h. in a 30 m.p.h. zone, white women were ticketed 28 percent of the time in the two sample months; white men, 34 percent; minority women, 44 percent; and minority men, 52 percent.
The striking exception to this pattern was the Massachusetts State Police. The records show that troopers gave almost exactly equal treatment to all drivers, regardless of race, sex, or age. No local police department of any size was as fair as the State Police.
The chief law enforcement officer in the state, Edward A. Flynn, said the Globe's findings should send a wake-up call to every police chief.
"I bet an awful lot of cops, if they looked at their own data, would be personally shocked that they had produced these statistics," said Flynn, the secretary of public safety.
"Most departments are small enough, you can look at everybody's warning activity versus their citation activity, and find out why there's a difference," Flynn said. "Why is this one different than that one? It's either different for an objective reason, or somebody is consciously or unconsciously - and, I would offer, usually unconsciously - applying a different standard to those groups. And to be confronted with it is to take a big step toward changing it."
The Globe analysis found clear patterns in who gets a break and who does not when it comes to traffic enforcement.
Researchers who have studied racial profiling said few, if any, studies have compared the treatment of drivers who commit the same offense.
"This analysis is important, because it documents a new dimension to the complex issue of racial disparities in traffic stops," said Northeastern University criminologist Jack McDevitt, who is studying the same citations for the state. "People have looked at the outcome of a traffic stop as an arrest, or not an arrest. Now you also have a financial outcome that's tied to who gets a ticket."
In January, the Globe reported that minorities in Massachusetts get twice as many tickets as their share of the driving-age population. Once ticketed, minorities were twice as likely as whites to be searched for contraband, even though searches of whites yielded drugs more often, according to two years of tickets studied by the newspaper. Similar patterns have been found in Rhode Island and other states.
In the new study of tickets and warnings, the Globe focused on speeding citations, because they are the most common and clearly indicate the severity of the driver's offense. And to compare the most similarly situated drivers, the Globe included only citations for a single traffic offense, excluding criminal offenses such as drunken driving, as well as citations involving accidents or commercial vehicles.
Statistics professor Elaine I. Allen of Babson College, commissioned by the Globe to review the data, found that the racial, gender, and age patterns discerned by the Globe are statistically significant.
The disparities in tickets and warnings do not, however, prove intentional bias, or profiling, by police. And the gaps in the state's records leave some other questions unresolved. State records don't show the address of the traffic stop, although it's recorded on the citation. Road conditions aren't known. Driver histories can't be readily matched to the thousands of tickets. Oral warnings weren't counted, after police chiefs lobbied against requiring officers to document every stop. And there's no way to know how often officers gave drivers a break - and a smaller fine - by citing them at a lower speed than they were traveling.
Even with those unknowns, researchers said the patterns in Massachusetts raise serious questions.
"What these trends should make clear is that there are significant disparities, and those disparities should cause concern not just for minority communities in Massachusetts, but for the police who are providing services to them," said Ronald L. Davis, a veteran police captain in Oakland, Calif., who has worked with the US Department of Justice on analyzing traffic stop data.
Davis, echoing other specialists, cautioned against drawing blanket conclusions about the intentions of police officers. Still, he said, "The numbers indicate some potential bias in enforcement, and that problem demands a response."
In Boston, police officials said they could not explain the racial patterns, but they welcomed the data and plan to gather more. (See accompanying story.)
The state's profiling law requires Flynn to order police departments to collect data on every traffic stop for a year, if the Northeastern study finds apparent disparities in those departments. Flynn has formed a task force to advise him on what findings should trigger that step.
With millions of dollars at stake in traffic fines and insurance premiums, civil rights advocates said more data collection is critical to keep tabs on police.
Although the Legislature in 2000 ordered a continuing study of tickets and warnings, the data entry of warnings stopped after just two months, for lack of funds. Romney asked for $840,000 in his budget this year to resume the effort, but the Legislature gave him just $150,000.
While racial and gender profiling are mentioned in the state law, lawmakers didn't focus on age. Punishing younger speeders more harshly may be legal, said Boston University law professor Tracey Maclin, because young drivers have been shown to have more traffic accidents. But intentional race or sex discrimination would fly in the face of the constitution's equal protection guarantee, Maclin said.
Some minority leaders likened the disparities in traffic stops to patterns long decried in employment and lending.
"If you're a minority, you don't know that your getting the ticket is part of a larger pattern," said state Senator Jarrett T. Barrios, a Democrat and Latino lawyer who represents Allston-Brighton and communities from Cambridge to Saugus. "These folks were all guilty. I recognize that. But as a group, to have one community receive such disproportionately tougher treatment is disturbing. It's like some folks who are guilty aren't being called into account."
Paying for six years
The economic impact of an officer's discretion is considerable. Speeding tickets in this state start now at $100, and rise quickly depending on the speed. A ticket for going 20 m.p.h. over the limit costs $200.
But the wallop really comes with the car insurance bill. The Globe estimated that a typical Massachusetts driver will pay $350 in higher insurance premiums for a single ticket, over the six years it stays on the driving record.
That's the extra cost when the surcharges in the state's Safe Driver Insurance Plan are applied to the $798 average annual premium for the coverages that every driver is required to carry.
The Globe estimated how many extra tickets different groups of drivers received, based on how their treatment by police differed from the treatment of the most favored group for each offense - always white women.
If the pattern of tickets and warnings from the two-month study held true for the entire year, about 14,000 minority drivers in the state paid $6.4 million extra in fines and insurance premiums, for speeding tickets alone, because they were punished more consistently at the same speeds.
Because white men make up more of the drivers in the state, they faced an even larger estimated cost, $15.3 million. White women also paid a price, an estimated $3.8 million a year, when they fell outside the age group most favored.
By getting four warnings, instead of four tickets, Azzolino, the waitress, saved $580 in traffic fines, and about $2,500 on her insurance. Then, in the summer of 2001, her luck ran out.
She was ticketed in Belchertown, twice by the same officer, though a judge threw out one ticket and reduced the fine on the other. She said she had no doubt why most officers before then had given her a pass.
"I remember one guy saying to slow down," Azzolino said. "He said I was too pretty, and he didn't want me to wrap my face around a tree."
For many minority drivers, especially men, the police encounter was far less forgiving.
Wayne J. Oliver was driving his 1999 Oldsmobile Alero home to Fall River from a job in Carver, taking the back road, when he saw a Freetown police car coming toward him. It was Monday, Feb. 25, 2002, at 2 p.m. The speed limit was 35 m.p.h. and he was ticketed for going 40 m.p.h. Oliver is black; the officer was white.
"It's a back road, off of [Route] 24. I was doing maybe 40. I saw him, he passed me. Boom, his lights went on, and he did a U turn. He told me I was doing 55. I said, `Are you serious?' He said, `I was going to give you a warning, but you got cocky with me.' That's all I said to him. I knew right there I was appealing it."
Oliver, now 46, drives small commercial trucks. He had only one blemish on his driving record, speeding in Fall River back in 1985, according to the Registry of Motor Vehicles. To fight this new ticket, he missed a day of work for court in Fall River; the hearing officer dismissed the ticket.
Oliver said he has no way to know whether some combination of age, sex, and race caused this officer to write him a ticket.
"Or maybe," he said, "the cop was just having a bad day."
There was no difficult conversation when Zhuo F. Chen was ticketed for speeding just 3 m.p.h. over the limit in Wellesley. The 23-year-old Chinese-American college student was driving home to Brookline on Jan. 31 from Worcester Polytechnic Institute. He went to court, where he said the judge immediately dismissed the ticket, which would have been Chen's second. He said he had no idea why he got the ticket.
"I figured it was just my age," Chen said.
While the balance of justice tilts against men, minorities, and the young, there are stunning exceptions: In Milton, a young black man from Dorchester, driving 75 m.p.h. in a 30 m.p.h. zone, was warned for speeding. In Medford, a 22-year-old white woman was ticketed, near her home, driving all of 31 m.p.h. in a 30 m.p.h. zone.
Still, for many minority drivers, the sense that they are being singled out lies at the heart of concerns about bias in policing.
"Our pitch has never been that people who speed shouldn't get a citation," said state Senator Dianne Wilkerson, a Boston Democrat and author of the profiling law. "But no one can dispute the fact that on any given day, you've got some 85 percent of people who are likely to be breaking some law at some time on the road."
With so many drivers flouting the law, Wilkerson said, officer discretion is inevitable.
"The problem," Wilkerson said, "is that no rational, thinking person would believe that in the exercise of that discretion in a fair, random, non-discriminatory manner ... you could have these kinds of disparities, category by category by category."
In all neighborhoods
If minority drivers often stand out in small towns, in Boston they are the norm. But living in a culturally diverse community doesn't protect Boston minorities and men from unequal treatment.
Some police officials have argued that a higher police presence in high-crime areas, where minorities are more likely to live, could explain racial disparities in a large city. But even in Boston's predominantly white neighborhoods, officers were less likely to warn minority drivers.
Police Superintendent Ann Marie Doherty said that each district captain sets the tone for traffic enforcement. Some districts, such as Dorchester, wrote tickets to eight out of 10 offending drivers, while officers downtown wrote tickets to just over three out of 10.
Doherty said new system tracking all citizen interactions should help supervisors determine whether some officers are showing favoritism.
"Everybody brings bias to the table," she said. "The majority of people don't even register that bias is at work."
An officer's pattern in two months might not reflect a career's work. But one patrolman's decisions shed some light on how gaps in ticketing can emerge.
At his speed trap on VFW Parkway in West Roxbury on Monday, April 2, 2001, Officer William G. Knecht wasn't guessing the speeds of cars headed toward him. He had the newest instrument for clocking motorists, a LIDAR gun. But his day was filled with moments of leniency and of toughness.
At 9:30 a.m., Knecht wrote a $115 ticket to a 35-year-old black woman from Boston, for going 14 m.p.h. over in a 35 zone. Five minutes later, the officer clocked at the same speed an 80-year-old white man from Medfield, and gave him a written warning.
The next day, Tuesday, back on the VFW Parkway, Knecht warned a 33-year-old white woman from Boston at 9:25 a.m., after he clocked her driving 16 m.p.h. over in a 35 m.p.h. zone.
Exactly 25 minutes later, Knecht ticketed a 28-year-old black man, also from Boston, though he was driving slower -- 15 m.p.h. over in the 35 m.p.h. zone.
In the two months studied, Knecht wrote 105 citations. He ticketed 84 percent of the minority speeders, and 72 percent of the whites. He ticketed men and women equally. And the older the driver, the more leniency Knecht showed, especially if the older driver was white.
Now assigned to the bomb squad, Knecht said he couldn't recall specific traffic stops, but he said he seldom gave fines to elderly drivers, presuming they were on a fixed income. Knecht, who is white, said he had been fair in the thousands of citations he wrote during 11 years.
And Knecht said he did show leniency to at least one black driver on that Monday. Although he wrote the man a ticket for only 10 m.p.h. over the 35 m.p.h. limit, he made a note in the top right-hand corner of the ticket: "64."
Through a Boston police spokeswoman, Knecht said that notation meant the driver was actually going 64 m.p.h., or 29 m.p.h. over the limit.
The spokeswoman said Knecht would sometimes lower the speed on a ticket, to save a driver a high fine. But the notation was there in case the driver challenged the ticket in court.
"There are always mitigating circumstances in a stop," Knecht said in an interview. "Anything could be said or could happen. Attitudes, people talking back to you. The circumstances change with each individual driver. But for most cops I know, race has nothing to do with it."
One of the older white drivers who received a warning from Knecht that Monday was Richard M. Alajajian, 70, from Roslindale. State records show him to be a perfect driver, but he knows better.
"I was tooling right along," said Alajajian, who was caught going 52 m.p.h. in a 35 m.p.h. zone. "He could've given me a ticket, but he decided not to. Now, what the reason was that he gave me a warning, I don't really know."
Tomorrow: Different justice on different streets. Is it safe?