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Study: Black & Latino drivers more likely to be searched

People of color have long suspected they were under increased scrutiny by police, and a recent Stanford University study confirms that Black and Latino drivers are searched during traffic stops at a higher rate than whites. This was true despite the fact that Latinos are statistically less likely than whites to be pulled over in the first place.

Researchers with Stanford University's Open Policing Project reviewed records on more than 64 million traffic stops performed in 20 U.S. states between 2011 and 2015. They had collected records on about 50,000 traffic stops performed each day and entering them into a database. Some states provided more information than others. Their goal was to determine whether any statistically significant evidence of racial bias could be found.

First, they noted that African-Americans are stopped more often than whites, and that whites are stopped more often than Latinos. This is not good evidence of bias, however, because the disparities could be explained by neutral factors such as driving behavior.

Even taking into account the location, date and time of the stop, the drivers' ages and their genders, however, the researchers found that the minority drivers were searched far more often. "We find that black and Hispanic drivers have approximately twice the odds of being searched relative to white drivers," the researchers said in their paper.

Could the higher rate of searches be explained by the black and Latino drivers being more likely to have contraband? The researchers considered this by comparing the search rate with the "hit rate," or how often drivers were actually found to be carrying drugs or other illegal materials. The hit rates for African-Americans and whites were equal, and the hit rate for Latinos was actually six points lower than either.

In other words, the researchers were able to show statistically that officers search African-Americans and Latinos more often than whites, even though whites are equally likely as African-Americans and more likely than Latinos to have contraband. This evidence was found statistically significant.

The researchers were careful to say that, while they do have statistical evidence of bias in police officers' inclination to search minority motorists over whites, the conclusions that can be drawn are limited. For example, there is insufficient evidence of whether search policies differ between jurisdictions.

As a final note, the researchers found that legalization of marijuana in Colorado and Washington had resulted in far fewer searches of motorists being performed in general.

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