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For some, report on Mass. traffic stops shows stubborn racial biases persist in policing

The report did not find evidence of racial disparity when it came to the drivers police chose to pull over.Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff

Despite no findings of police bias, a new state report revealing stark racial disparities in outcomes of traffic stops in Massachusetts is further documentation of inequities in the justice system, community leaders and experts said.

Released Monday, the report analyzed 11 months of traffic stops in 2020 and determined Black and Latino drivers were more likely than white drivers to be subjected to searches during stops and had a higher chance of receiving a criminal citation or being arrested.

However, the 400-plus-page document said there was no evidence of racial disparity when it came to the drivers police chose to pull over.

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The Rev. Jeffrey Brown of Twelfth Baptist Church in Roxbury said the findings felt all too familiar.

“We’ve been dealing with issues around traffic stops for decades now. . . . And it doesn’t seem like there’s any systemic change that’s happening to stop it,” Brown said.

For people of color, traffic stops can be high-risk encounters, Brown said.

“When Black folk get stopped by police, one of the very clear things that we’re aware of is how quickly things can escalate to, you know, somebody getting harmed,” Brown said. “In order for it to end, there has to be some fundamental reforms that really show the community that, you know, people are really intending on doing policing in a different way.”

The study analyzed data from State Police and local departments that conducted 100 or more stops — about 280 of the 350 law enforcement agencies in Massachusetts, officials said.

According to the study, law enforcement agencies across the state made more than 425,000 stops during the period. White drivers accounted for 65 percent of stops, Black drivers about 16 percent, and about 15 percent were Hispanic drivers. About 4 percent were either Asian, Asian Pacific, Native American, Middle Eastern, or Pacific Islander.

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The study found that motorists of color were subjected to more searches than white drivers during stops made by State Police. It also found that in Boston, more police stops involved Black drivers than white drivers.

Daniel Medwed, a law and criminal justice professor at Northeastern University, said “the key finding is that drivers of color are more likely to be searched and given citations after a stop.” That, he said, is “revealing about potential police biases in making judgment calls about whether a search is warranted or a citation merited under the circumstances.”

Researchers from Salem State University and Worcester State University analyzed the data using a method that compares stops made at night to those made during daylight hours, the report said, “based on the logic that police officers are less likely to be able to determine a driver’s race at night than during the day.”

State authorities said an analysis found there were no patterns of racial disparity in who was pulled over by police. The report found that motorists of color are 36 percent less likely to be stopped in daylight, when they could potentially be seen and racially profiled, than in darkness.

Jamarhl Crawford, a community advocate who served on a police reform task force in Boston in recent months, said he was skeptical of the findings about who was pulled over, as well as the police agencies reporting the data.

Crawford said he knows from experience that location can determine whether and when a person of color is pulled over. For instance, Crawford said he and his friends know their chances of getting stopped by police in Brookline or Newton are far greater than in Dorchester, and increase after dark. Style of car, music playing, flashy rims, or tinted windows can heighten the odds, he said.

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“Things that I have seen in the past have indicated racial disparities,” Crawford said. “I’ve lived through this. It’s not something that I heard, or some old wives’ tale.”

Iván Espinoza-Madrigal, executive director of Lawyers for Civil Rights Boston, found it alarming that drivers of color were more likely to be searched, cited, criminally charged, and arrested, a trend he sees at his own legal organization.

“Since George Floyd’s murder, an increasing number of Black and Latinx people are contacting us for legal assistance in connection with police encounters, often reporting unlawful pat-and-frisk practices and vehicle searches,” Espinoza-Madrigal said.

However, he said the report was lacking critical information on the circumstances of each stop by police, a sentiment shared by the Rev. Willie Bodrick, also of Twelfth Baptist Church.

“It’s important that we as a Commonwealth take a strong stance on making sure that we’re capturing the realities of the lived experience of people on the ground, because it might help us get closer to solving some of these problem,” he said.

The data offered a window into law enforcement actions by the state’s two largest police departments.

State Police made 168,000 stops during the time frame of the study. Of those stops resulting in searches, 57 percent involved motorists of color.

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The State Police stops were more likely to result in criminal citations or arrest for Black and Hispanic drivers than white motorists or drivers who fell into the “other” category, the study shows. Researchers found that of the Black drivers stopped, 13.6 percent were issued a criminal citation. For Hispanic drivers it was 18.9 percent, and for white drivers it was 7.1 percent. A similar pattern played out for arrests: 3.8 percent of stopped Black motorists were arrested, 4.1 percent of Hispanic motorists, and 2 percent of white motorists.

David Procopio, a State Police spokesman, said the agency, “remain committed to upholding the constitutional and civil rights of all citizens, which includes enforcing roadway safety without bias.” He pointed out that the researchers cautioned that the findings, “do not confirm racial profiling and any incidents of statistical significance could have a variety of explanations other than officer bias.”

“The baseline analysis of our enforcement data overwhelmingly found no patterns of racial disparity in nearly all 50 MSP barracks and units,” said Procopio in an e-mail.

The Boston Police Department made 25,000 traffic stops during the studied period. Black drivers constituted 44 percent of those stops; Black residents comprise about a quarter of the city’s population. About a third of stops in the city involved white drivers.

For Black drivers in Boston, 83.6 percent of stops ended in police giving the driver a warning, 11.3 percent ended with a civil citation, 4.2 percent ended with a criminal citation, and 0.9 percent in arrest, according to the report. Hispanic drivers were given a warning in about 81 percent of stops, a civil citation in 15.2 percent of stops, a criminal charge in 3.4 percent of stops, and were arrested in 0.3 percent of stops.

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About 88.7 percent of white drivers were let off with a warning, 9.4 percent received a civil charge, 1.6 percent received a criminal charge, and 0.2 percent were arrested, according to the report.

In a statement, Boston Mayor Michelle Wu said Tuesday, “Every resident in our city deserves to feel safe in the knowledge that our Police Department will uphold its responsibility to serve and protect them.”

“As our search for a new police commissioner proceeds, community feedback from our listening sessions has been clear that this leader must be a partner in transforming the culture and structures of public safety and health to make progress toward racial equity in Boston,” she said.

Jeffrey Butts, the director of the Research and Evaluation Center at John Jay College, said Tuesday that the results of the study are “not surprising.”

“When we talk about racial and ethnic bias in the justice system it’s always a little increment of bias at every stage . . . [it] ends up being a huge problem at the end,” he said.



Tonya Alanez can be reached at tonya.alanez@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @talanez. Danny McDonald can be reached at daniel.mcdonald@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Danny__McDonald.