Troopers fair, tough in traffic encounters
Last in a series
By Francie Latour, Globe Staff, and Bill Dedman, Globe Correspondent, 7/22/2003
here was the New Jersey police colonel who blamed minorities for much of the state's drug trafficking. There were the troopers who fired into a van full of unarmed black and Hispanic young men on the New Jersey Turnpike.
And finally, there was the admission of bias, spelled out in a 1999 report by the State of New Jersey itself: ''We conclude that the problem of disparate treatment of minority motorists is real, not imagined.''
For more than a decade, the terms ''racial profiling'' and ''state police'' have been linked in the public mind, since allegations against troopers in New Jersey, Maryland, and other states sparked a national outcry over the targeting of minorities.
But in a Boston Globe study of one of the most routine decisions police make -- whether to issue a ticket or a written warning for speeding and other violations -- the Massachusetts State Police force stands out for its fairness, its evenhanded toughness. While local police officers here consistently favored whites, women, and older drivers, state troopers appeared to be dispensing justice based on what the drivers did, not who they were.
The State Police statistics suggest that, with focused training and experience, unequal treatment of drivers is not inevitable.
For the most common offense, speeding 15 miles per hour over the limit, state troopers ticketed 83 percent of white women, 83 percent of minority women, 85 percent of white men, and 87 percent of minority men.
These small differences are not statistically significant.
That balanced use of discretion by State Police came as something of a surprise to civil rights leaders, who said they hoped that somehow the mix of professionalism, training, and supervision in State Police barracks could be exported to local police departments.
''I was surprised that the state police were so consistent in handing out tickets and warnings, compared to local departments,'' said Jacinta Ma, a former civil rights prosecutor with the state attorney general's office and a member of the state task force on racial profiling. ''You want to look at them and ask, `What are they doing? How are they achieving that result?' ''
Researchers who monitor racial profiling nationally noted that Massachusetts State Police do not use highway traffic stops for drug enforcement, unlike some of the states where the controversy over profiling has been most intense. The deputy commander of training for the State Police, Major Dennis J. Galvin, said he couldn't be certain what was driving the evenhandedness. But he said that the department's close monitoring of each officer's citations, and the rigor that grows out of the sheer volume of tickets and warnings written by troopers, could be factors.
While local police officers are trained to deal with the public in any number of situations, responding to crimes both violent and petty, a state trooper's clear focus is on patrolling the state highways.
Indeed, troopers wrote one-quarter of all the traffic citations in the state -- more than 43,000 of the 166,000 citations during the study period, April and May of 2001. Those were the only two months in which the state kept data on written warnings.
The possibility that sheer repetition increases fairness is also reflected in patterns of traffic enforcement by Boston Police: While the department as a whole treated minorities and men more harshly than whites and women for the same violations, the small corps of Boston police officers who wrote the most citations showed a level of fairness that approached that of the State Police, the Globe found. The more citations a Boston officer wrote, the fairer the officer was to whites and minorities, and to men and women.
The problem, from the perspective of a police chief who wants to eliminate profiling, is that there aren't many officers who write a large number of tickets.
Fully a third of the traffic citations in Boston were written by officers with a full range of duties, who each wrote, on average, less than one citation a day. And those infrequent ticketers, the Globe found, were most inclined to give whites and women a break. ''It's obvious, but we spend a lot of time doing this kind of thing,'' said Galvin, a 28-year State Police veteran. ''Our stock in trade for many years has been traffic enforcement. . . . And as part of that, one of our fundamental principles that every state trooper has to learn is, we go after violations, not violators. That's very important.''
'I don't like games'
The fairness of the State Police doesn't shock Trooper Scott Schubert.
On an afternoon patrol last week on Interstate 495 in Hopkinton, Schubert fit the classic image of the Massachusetts ''statie:'' square-jawed, steady, poker-faced. He's the kind of trooper who likes to keep his hat in a hat press when he's driving, the kind with the Marine Corps bulldog and his German family crest for tattoos. And while he expects drivers to slow down in his presence -- a phenomenon he described as ''parting like the Red Sea'' -- Schubert is the kind of trooper who almost wishes they wouldn't.
''It's frustrating at times,'' said Schubert, 35. ''Because people who would normally speed when I'm not here aren't going to.''
Which means: He can't catch them.
But the 11-year veteran is also the type of trooper who believes that schooling drivers can be as effective as fining them. When making a stop, he weighs whether the offender is likely to respond to a warning or might take leniency the wrong way. (His third tattoo is of the unrelenting cartoon character Wile E. Coyote.)
Schubert hates the stock line, ''Do you know why I stopped you?'' when confronting a speeder. He says he's never used it, and he never will. ''I don't like playing games,'' he said.
From behind the wheel of cruiser No. 780, Schubert stopped a white-collar worker and a college student in the course of a couple of hours on patrol with a reporter. He warned them both: one with a slip of paper, the other with a lesson on left-lane violations.
Surveying the stream of traffic around him, Schubert ticked off a list of his most colorful traffic stops. There was the driver he stopped going 50 m.p.h. in a 55 zone -- five miles under the limit. It was snowing. There was the driver he clocked at 106 m.p.h., one of his fastest stops ever. And then there was the driver who actually gestured as Schubert walked to his window, asking him to hold on while he finished a cellphone call.
But whether the drivers he stops are male or female, old or young, white or minority, Schubert says he tries to focus on their behavior behind the wheel, and their behavior toward him.
''Basically, the way I feel about the issue with racial profiling is, no matter who you're stopping, you treat everybody the same,'' Schubert said. ''Generally, I think people conduct themselves more or less the same. You're going to show respect the same way. You're going to show nervousness the same way.''
In general, the Globe review found, state troopers were tougher on traffic violators than local police, leaving less room for the kind of discretion that researchers say opens the door to bias. While local police in Boston and across the state warned about half of all speeders, state troopers warned only one in four.
Individual barracks did vary. Troop E, which primarily patrols the Massachusetts Turnpike, ticketed 89 percent of the speeders who were cited. Troop D, which extends from Hull across Fall River to Cape Cod, ticketed only 64 percent of all speeders, closer to the 50 percent state average.
But the relative toughness of troopers doesn't explain their evenhanded ticketing pattern. Though troopers were less generous with warnings, they did issue them, and did not favor any race, sex, or age group. It was also not a factor for them what kind of car a speeder drove -- red roadster or family sedan -- or how late at night the stop was made.
And although local police chiefs often portray state troopers as robotic in their enforcement, some State Police troopers were far more lenient than others. While one trooper wrote a ticket for 31 m.p.h. in a 30 m.p.h. zone in Lynn, there's also the case of accountant Anthony Russo of Middleton, a commuter who got a warning for driving 70 m.p.h. in a 35 zone -- after he cut off a motorcycle patrol trooper in traffic on the Tobin Bridge.
''No, I didn't think he was going to give me a ticket,'' Russo recalled. ''I thought he was going to arrest me.''
Police commanders who monitor racial profiling across the country said the fairness of state troopers shouldn't really come as a surprise.
''When you look at New Jersey and Maryland, it was the adoption of policies like drug interdiction that resulted in problems,'' said Ronald L. Davis, a veteran police captain in Oakland, Calif., and a specialist in profiling studies. ''Once you start trying to guess who is using or trafficking narcotics based on a profile, that's when you start having disparities in race.''
Both states had begun a policy of targeting drug couriers through highway arrests, using the model of Operation Pipeline, a program that relied on a profile of physical and behavioral characteristics to identify possible traffickers. Many of those searched turned out to be black or Latino.
In New Jersey, the state paid millions to settle lawsuits, and dismissed dozens of indictments against minorities arrested by state troopers. In 1999, the head of the State Police was fired for making remarks linking drug trafficking to minority groups. And last year, two former troopers involved in the 1998 shooting of three unarmed youths in a van admitted to targeting minorities. Ultimately, a federal investigation led to an overhaul of traffic stops.
In Maryland this year, a consent decree finally ended a 10-year legal battle over racial profiling, after studies supported claims of bias by black drivers who were stopped and searched on I-95. Under the decree, troopers are required to record all stops with video cameras and to give motorists pamphlets explaining how to file a complaint.
Though Massachusetts State Police didn't use the Operation Pipeline model, troopers here have not been completely immune from the taint of possible bias. In January, the Globe reported that the State Police, over a two-year period, searched minorities who were ticketed at twice the rate of whites, even though searches of whites were more likely to yield drugs.
Galvin, who supervises training for the State Police, said troopers have the same wide discretion over whether to ticket or warn as local police officers. Troopers are not bound to start writing only tickets when drivers hit a certain speed over the speed limit, for example, though the records show that for most troopers 10 m.p.h. over merits a ticket.
The only limits placed on officers, Galvin said, are the ones they set for themselves -- and perhaps a set of unspoken standards built over weeks of training and supervision dedicated to traffic patrolling.
In addition to training on racial profiling for both veterans and recruits, new troopers are required to undergo a 40-hour course on motor vehicle laws, and 40 more hours on patrol procedure, including simulations of traffic stops, Galvin said. Another 20 hours are spent on operation of the RADAR and LIDAR devices used to measure speeds.
When that training is done, Galvin said, troopers begin a 90-day apprentice period, when they patrol with a veteran officer. The probation can be extended if problems are found.
Even with that training, Galvin said, supervision remains critical. State Police supervisors review all tickets and warnings written by troopers every month, looking for irregular patterns.
''No matter how much training you do . . . if you have people who are allowed to operate independently, inevitably they will veer off,'' Galvin said. ''That's where you get into situations where things can start to happen and the problems begin.''
In Boston, police officials said that training on how to exercise discretion when making traffic stops is woven through the 36-week training for recruits. Police spokeswoman Mariellen Burns said the recruits spend 88 hours on motor vehicle laws, and 44 hours on patrol procedures, which include traffic patrol. Officers who specialize in traffic enforcement receive further training in the use of speed trap devices, she said. Like the State Police, all Boston Police officers undergo training on how to avoid racial profiling, Superintendent Ann Marie Doherty said.
Such training is supposed to be conducted by every police department in the state, according to the 2000 law on profiling. Many departments have had sessions. But there was little money for it.
''It's important that the training be maintained,'' said James M. Machado, a Fall River patrolman and a director of the Massachusetts Police Association, with more than 20,000 members. ''To say that biases don't exist in policing would be foolish. But I think the statistics would bear out that there is a very, very small portion of officers that may be involved in this. The only thing we can do is educate and train, and make police officers mindful of the power that they have.''
Several police chiefs said they don't routinely monitor traffic citations for fairness, as the State Police do. If an officer is inclined a favor one type of driver over another, such departments could not easily detect it.
Boston Police commanders said they had been counting on the state's profiling law, which requires the state to track all citations and send statistical reports to each department. But those updates have been sporadic, and two months after the Registry of Motor Vehicles began typing information on written warnings into its database in 2001, it stopped for lack of funds. Now, Doherty said, Boston Police are building their own database to track citations.
If the stereotype of a biased police force calls to mind a few rogue officers, the patterns in Boston show that scattered decisions by a large group of officers can add up to disparities for the entire department.
The group of 20 officers who wrote the most tickets, accounting for a third of all the citations in Boston, were most nearly fair. When they cited drivers for speeding 10 to 15 m.p.h over the limit in a 30 m.p.h zone, for example, they ticketed 31 percent of whites and 35 percent of minorities.
By contrast, the much larger group of those who rarely cited drivers, 703 officers in all, also accounted for a third of the citations. And for the same violations, they ticketed 24 percent of whites and 46 percent of minorities.
Those kinds of disparities, besides unfairly inflicting costs on certain kinds of drivers, may cause enduring harm to the reputation of law enforcement.
''I've done this job 30 years,'' said Galvin, the State Police trainer. ''Selecting people based on irrelevant qualities doesn't do anything to help increase safety. If you're about safety, you're wasting your time if you're doing that.''