News your connection to The Boston Globe
First of two parts

Traffic citations reveal disparity in police searches

By Bill Dedman, Globe Correspondent, and Francie Latour, Globe Staff, 1/6/2003

    On city boulevards and rural lanes, whites and women are far more likely to receive written warnings instead of tickets when stopped for identical traffic offenses, according to a Boston Globe study of newly released state records.


Police plan public meeting

Chiefs deny racial profiling

Civil rights advocates laud plan

Police chiefs decry study

Racial profiling is confirmed
Northeastern study [PDF]
Report summary
Who got a passing grade?
Police response [MS Word]

Police flouting 'no fix' law on tickets

Profiling study cites dozens of locales Charts
Northeastern study [PDF]

Reilly starts push to end profiling in police stops

Boston police to get tough on tickets

Judge: Suspect must stay in jail

Seeing bias, evidence tossed

Deeper look at profiling

Funding urged for study

Ticketing cited despite curbs

Romney backs profile tracking
People asked to join task force

Chief: Glitch caused error

Task force to review data


Day 1:
Race, sex, and age drive ticketing
Minority officers are stricter on minorities
Boston to track all stops by police

Who gets fined for speeding
Minority officers
Most-favored status
One officer's week

Ticketing whites vs. minorities
Large departments | All

Ticketing women vs. men
Large departments | All

Day 2:
Punishment varies by town and officer

How tickets raise insurance
Ranking the departments
Littering is worse?

Toughest on speeders
Large departments | All
Locals vs. out-of-towners
Large departments | All

Day 3:
Troopers fair, tough in traffic encounters

Frequent ticketers
How fast can you go?

Editorial: Tickets to fix
Op-Ed: Looking deeper
Op-Ed: Study proves nothing
Profiles in prejudice


Q & A
Secretary of Public Safety Edward A. Flynn, the senior law enforcement official in Massachusetts, spoke with the Globe about this series. Q & A

Detailed report
A closer look at how the Globe analyzed hundreds of thousands of traffic tickets.
Download study
This .PDF document requires Adobe Acrobat

Online chat
Globe reporter Bill Dedman chatted with readers about this series.
Read full transcript


In January, the Globe published the first results of its analysis.

Part 1:
Citations reveal disparity
Totals key to computations

Tracking tickets
Searches by race and age

Searching minorities more often
Ticketing their own

Part 2:
Police not pressed on race
Tewksbury cop is tops
Fridays worst for tickets
Scope of monitoring reduced

Where race was not recorded

Failing to record the race
Searching more cars

When a police officer in Massachusetts pulls over a car and writes a routine traffic ticket, the officer is far more likely to search the car of a black or Hispanic driver than that of a white driver.

Nearly two years after the state began collecting information on traffic citations to measure possible racial profiling by police, a Boston Globe analysis of more than 750,000 tickets, from every police department in the state, shows a wide racial disparity in traffic tickets and vehicle searches.

Although blacks and Hispanics are more likely to be searched, whites are more likely than any other racial group to face drug charges following a search - supporting a claim by minorities that they are searched with less reason.

Statewide, black and Hispanic drivers received traffic tickets at a rate twice their share of the population. Once ticketed, they were 50 percent more likely than whites to have their cars searched, a disparity affecting 1,040 blacks and Hispanics in the 20 months studied.

Police are allowed to ''profile'' - to use what they know about a crime to search for a suspect. But ''racial profiling'' refers to allegations that police single out minorities, such as stopping them for minor traffic offenses to search their cars under an assumption that drug couriers are most often minorities.

Following a national furor over racial profiling - often derided as ''driving while black'' - Massachusetts in 2000 followed more than 20 states and hundreds of local police forces by ordering the collection of information on all traffic tickets.

High-profile incidents in the state included one case that will be heard next week in federal court: A black agent for the Drug Enforcement Administration said police in Reading harassed and detained him for an expired license plate, even though he was driving an unmarked cruiser and showed his badge.

Although the state's data collection was intended to move the debate over profiling beyond anecdotes - and although the disparities in Massachusetts, as in other states, appear to be large - researchers say that no records can prove whether disparities are caused by bias.

Under the law, however, discrimination does not have to be intentional to have an effect or to be illegal.

And though state public safety officials tout the antiprofiling law as one of the most extensive in the country, specialists say the effort in Massachusetts is actually one of the least detailed.

For example, in Rhode Island and many states and cities, police agencies have tracked many details of every police stop, whether or not it results in a ticket, revealing wide racial disparities.

In Massachusetts, there is no way to know, for example, whether a search was based on probable cause or a driver's consent, or whether contraband other than drugs was found. And because the Registry of Motor Vehicles doesn't type written warnings into its database, for lack of funds, and because oral warnings aren't recorded at all, it is impossible to say when the racial disparity develops. Perhaps minorities are stopped more often by police, or perhaps minorities who are stopped are more likely than whites to get a ticket, or perhaps both are true.

Still, specialists in the study of policing said that the higher share of whites charged with drug crimes after a search - the ''hit rate'' - suggests an unequal pattern in deciding whom to search. Lorie A. Fridell, a criminologist and director of research at the Police Executive Research Forum, a national group of police executives, said that the state's traffic citation forms collect very little information, but can raise a warning.

''If minority hit rates are significantly lower than majority hit rates, this is a strong red flag,'' said Fridell, who is writing a guide for the US Department of Justice on how to measure bias in policing. ''The implication is that the threshold for police is different in searching the two groups.''

Even though the records add weight to the emotional stories of racial disparity, specialists say, they leave the state among the least equipped in the nation to address, or even describe, what plays out in the often tense encounter between citizen and police officer.

Although the data have limitations, the sponsor of the state law said they demand an explanation from police.

''What we now know,'' said the sponsor, state Senator Dianne Wilkerson, a Roxbury Democrat, ''is that blacks and Hispanics who get ticketed are more likely to get searched, but less likely to have drugs. What else does a police chief in this state need to know to at least be concerned?''

Wilkerson said she is eagerly awaiting the results of a state-sponsored study of the same tickets by researchers at Northeastern University.

The state's police chiefs association says that racial bias, or even a racial disparity, can't be proven by looking at traffic tickets because so little information was collected on each ticket. But the chiefs also say they oppose collecting more detailed information, as other states have done.

''If you want to change the culture, we'll help you,'' said John M. Collins, general counsel for the Massachusetts Police Chiefs Association.

''Our association took a vote to say, let's acknowledge that racial profiling is a problem in America, without spending time and money studying whether it's happening in Massachusetts. Let's study what other states did wrong. Some people just wanted to prove that police are bigots.''

The decision on how to respond to the racial disparities rests with Governor Mitt Romney's secretary of public safety, Edward A. Flynn, a former chief of police in Chelsea. Under the antiprofiling law, Flynn may order police departments with large disparities to collect more data on every stop.

In his most recent post as police chief in Arlington, Va., Flynn said he believed that racial profiling can be a Catch-22 for police: Crime-plagued urban communities often plead for more aggressive police patrols, but civil rights groups accuse police of disproportionately stopping or arresting minorities in those neighborhoods.

The Globe found wide racial disparities in all kinds of communities: urban, suburban, and rural. But how great a disparity is too great? The law doesn't say. A spokesman for Flynn said that the department would wait for the results of the Northeastern study, expected this spring, before taking action.

The Globe obtained the database of 764,065 traffic tickets from the Registry of Motor Vehicles under the state's open-records law including tickets from 367 police departments from April 2001 through November 2002.

Among the findings were:

Blacks and Hispanics are ticketed at about twice their share of the population. Although blacks account for 4.6 percent of the state's driving-age population, they receive 10.0 percent of tickets to state residents. Hispanics make up 5.6 percent of the population, but get 9.6 percent of tickets.

Once a driver gets a ticket, a vehicle search is rare, occurring only every 60 tickets. But the search rate for black and Hispanic drivers is about 1 out of 40 tickets. Hispanics are searched the most often, 2.4 percent of tickets, followed by blacks (2.3 percent); American Indians (2.2); whites (1.6); Asians (0.8); and Middle Easterners (0.7). Blacks and Hispanics driving a new car are especially more often searched than whites in new cars.

Once searched, more of the whites were apparently found with drugs. Officers are required to report drug charges on tickets, so the Registry can suspend driving privileges. In all, 16 percent of whites searched were charged with a drug offense, compared with 12 percent of blacks, 10 percent of Hispanics, 7 percent of Asians, 6 percent of American Indians, and 4 percent of Middle Easterners. The tickets don't detail what officers were looking for, or whether they found it, but they do show whether there was a drug charge.

Although the terrorist attacks on the United States shifted the public debate on racial profiling to targeting of Arabs, the search rate for Middle Easterners was lower than for whites before Sept. 11, 2001, and remained lower after. Middle Eastern men were searched in 1 out of every 142 traffic tickets, compared with 1 of every 37 black men.

Minorities face greater policing even at home. In more than half the state's communities, minorities get a greater share of tickets in the town where they live from the town police than their share of the town's driving-age population. Among larger communities, five police departments ticket their minority residents at least twice as often as their share of the population: Marlborough, Fitchburg, Leominster, Methuen, and Salem.

Black drivers especially receive more tickets, even in their hometowns. Forty-five communities ticket their black residents at least four times as often as their share of the census. The largest towns with such a disparity are Wareham, Falmouth, Yarmouth, New Bedford, and Melrose.

And in 19 communities, minorities who are ticketed are searched twice as often as whites: suburbs Brookline, Canton, Newton, Southborough, Wilbraham, and Wilmington; shore towns Barnstable and Wareham; rural Amesbury; and urban centers Cambridge, Chelsea, Everett, Fall River, Fitchburg, Haverhill, Northampton, Salem, Springfield, and Worcester.

Some who have experienced tense encounters with police say the records vindicate their belief that police stop, ticket, and search them because of their race.

Damien Mahaffey, a 28-year-old black man from Waltham, said he was pulled over by Belmont police three times in three months in 1999. In that same span, his wife, who is also black, was pulled over twice. Neither was issued a ticket.

''If the rates at which people are pulled over and searched shows a disparity against minorities, and yet pulling over whites is more likely to yield drugs, I hope that is really digested by the community in general, not just by the police,'' said Mahaffey, a housing counselor at Bentley College in Waltham.

''It's important because the justification for racial profiling is that in the course of their actual duty police are dealing with blacks and Hispanics who are more likely to be in violation of the law,'' Mahaffey said. ''These statistics really put a different perspective on that notion.''

In the debate surrounding racial profiling, police officials have often argued that age accounts for most of the disparity, with young black and Hispanic males driving in areas that get the most police attention.

But the records show that the racial disparity in searches only gets larger among older men. Although drivers who are older are searched less among all races, the chances of being searched falls much more sharply for whites than for minorities, widening the racial gap.

Under age 30, black men are searched 48 percent more than whites, but the rate rises to 74 percent when only men ages 50 and up are compared. Likewise, younger Hispanic men are searched 31 percent more than whites, while older Hispanic men are searched 47 percent more than whites.

A police officer in Massachusetts is allowed by law to search a vehicle for contraband without a warrant, but only if the driver gives consent, or if the officer sees, hears, or smells something that would cause a reasonable person to believe there is probable cause that there is evidence of a crime - not a hunch or intuition, according to police training manuals.

The totals for searches by police are inflated, some police chiefs said, because many officers don't understand how to fill out the traffic ticket. They're supposed to check ''yes'' for a search only if it's a ''non-inventory'' search, such as for contraband, not a search to inventory the contents of a vehicle when it is towed, or when the driver is arrested.

But the racial disparity in searches persists when the only charge is speeding, which doesn't usually result in a tow or an arrest. Among drivers who are ticketed only for speeding, and who are not in an accident, blacks are searched nearly 50 percent more than whites, and Hispanics are searched nearly twice as often as whites.

Police chiefs say that the tickets alone can't prove anything. Collins pointed out that police may do more traffic enforcement in higher-crime areas, which may happen to be more heavily minority. Or, he suggested, police may ask drivers of all races for consent to search their vehicles, but if more of the white drivers refuse, then the search rate for minorities would rise.

''We are clearly opposed to racial profiling,'' Collins said. ''We don't condone it. We don't teach it. And when we find it, we discipline for it.

''Given that, we find that the best way to cure the problem is not just by doing studies.''

Wilkerson calls that a circular argument.

''They don't support the collection of any more data, but of the data we have, they say it's not conclusive, because more data wasn't collected,'' Wilkerson said.

''To those who don't want to see or hear this, I'm not sure there's anything we could produce that would convince them that there might be some kind of a problem.''

Next: ''Are they black, or are they white?''

Bill Dedman can be reached at Francie Latour can be reached at Rankings of Massachusetts police departments by disparities in tickets and searches are on

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 1/6/2003.
© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.

Globe Archives Today (free)
Yesterday (free)
Past 30 days
Last 12 months
 Advanced search