Few are prepared to label all law enforcement officials as “racist” or “corrupt.”
In fact the opposite is true.
Most police officers, corrections officers, lawyers, and judges are objective and law abiding.
But it’s that latter term–“law abiding”–that may actually present the problem.
“Law abiding” implies conforming to present laws, even if some of those laws are unjust, biased, and corrupt.
Now a study presents findings to strongly suggest police are statistically more likely to pull over Black motorists more than white motorists, further advancing the question: Is law enforcement racism due to a few unprofessional cops abusing their authority, or is the entire system corrupt?
According to Princeton University researchers Felipe Goncalves and Steven Melloa, 25 percent of Florida police officers demonstrate racial bias while on duty.
Although their study concentrates solely on Florida highway patrol, it exposes an ideology running straight through the heart of the American criminal justice system. That 25 percent could be higher or lower, depending on locations’ socioeconomics, local police practices, education, training, salaries, and department diversity.
Goncalves and Mello examined how Florida highway patrol officers issued speeding tickets from 2005 to 2015.
As in other states, the penalty for speeding in Florida increases based on how much drivers exceed speed limits. Officers frequently issue tickets for below those limits so drivers avoid harsher fines.
The threshold to trigger a steeper fine is ten miles over the speed limit.
However, the study reports that in Florida there are many more tickets issued for drivers exceeding the speed by only nine miles per hour over the limit, and most of those ticketed drivers were Black and Hispanic.
Goncalves and Mello report that without factors such as gender, age, income, speed, previous infractions, and vehicle type, Black and Hispanic drivers are respectively 3.8 and 14.9 percent less likely than white drivers to be cited at 9 mph.
Once they applied those factors, though, they found Black drivers were at least two percentage points less likely to be cited for driving nine mph above the speed limit; Hispanic drivers were about 1.4 percentage point less likely.
They conclude about 25 percent of officers fuel the racial bias, mostly among older officers. Women and college-educated police officers are found to be less biased on average.
The authors acknowledge there are caveats to their study.
First, it is not peer reviewed.
It also examines bias levels bias after a driver is ticketed. This means, based on previous research, it is likely there is bias based on whom an officer decides to ticket.
In addition, the findings only deal with Florida state police. Other departments may get different results.
Goncalves and Mello state:
“We study a specific decision (fine discounting) and a single department. Several studies have found no racial bias in other policing activities (e.g. vehicle searches) and other police departments, and we would not suggest using our study [to] say that 25% of officers are biased in these contexts as well.”
Jennifer Doleac, a researcher at the University of Virginia, provided some examples of how the 25 percent bias may be underestimated. She stated it’s possible officers are more likely to stop and ticket Black drivers. The percentage does not account for white drivers let off with warnings, or never stopped at all.
Doleac also suggests the percentage could be too high.
“Police are sensitive to drivers’ ability to pay the ticket, and Black drivers on average are less wealthy than white drivers. They don’t discriminate when deciding whom to pull over, but are more likely to let Black drivers off with a warning because they worry a ticket would be a greater burden for those drivers. The bigger mass of white drivers at 9 mph over the speed limit would then reflect white drivers’ being less likely to get a warning (and thus more likely to show up in the data).”
Based on their statistical models, Felipe Goncalves and Steven Melloa argue firing biased officers and hiring more women could help close the gap.
The most significant change, though, could be to employ officers less likely to write harsh tickets in places with larger minority populations to counteract racial bias.
Researchers found at the moment the most lenient officers are more commonly assigned to communities with smaller minority populations.
With so much attention on racial bias in law enforcement, the study at the least suggests a minority of cops lie at the problem’s core, and there are practical steps police departments can take to rein them in.
Featured image from Nerd Wallet.