With more than 20 million drivers pulled over each year, traffic stops are the most common way people interact with the police in the United States. For Black men, who are arrested and subjected to force at a disproportionate rate, they can also be among the most dangerous.
Police in Suffolk County stop Black drivers 1.6 times as often as white drivers, a number that nearly doubles when looking exclusively at minor traffic violations, according to a new study by the Vera Institute of Justice that reform advocates cite as evidence that police shouldn’t be responsible for handling the vast majority of vehicle violations.
“It is imperative that Suffolk County and Boston start taking steps to remove law enforcement from traffic safety,” Fatema Ahmad, executive director of the Muslim Justice League, said in a statement. Ahmad called traffic stops “a major source of racial profiling” that “do not improve traffic safety and harm Black and brown people daily.”
The death of another Black man at the hands of a white Michigan police officer during a traffic stop in April renewed cries to rethink the role of police officers in responding to minor vehicle violations, including driving with tinted windows, a faulty tail light, or expired registration. Patrick Lyoya, 26, was stopped for driving with a license plate that didn’t belong to his vehicle. The police officer was charged with second-degree murder after fatally shooting Lyoya in a struggle that ensued over his driver’s license.
US Attorney Rachael Rollins, the former Suffolk district attorney, said there is “absolutely a movement” to change the approach to misdemeanor traffic violations in the legal system.
“What we’ve sadly seen around the country is some of these low-level traffic stops result in harm, either to the driver or to the officer, and I care about both,” she said. “We in law enforcement need to start adapting our approach, because it is unbelievable that a misdemeanor like that could result in a murder.”
While prosecutors cannot change state law, district attorneys can decide not to prosecute certain offenses, a discretionary power Rollins instructed her office to use regularly for certain low-level misdemeanors. A spokesman for current Suffolk district attorney Kevin Hayden said his office is “still looking at the report and keeping all options on the table.”
After examining county-wide traffic-stop data from 2002 to 2021, the Vera Institute determined that in Boston, police stop Black drivers at 2.4 times the rate of white drivers — and 3.8 times for non-traffic-safety violations. In Winthrop, that racial disparity is more than twice as severe.
The study also found that Black drivers were the only racial or ethnic group consistently overrepresented in traffic stops across Suffolk County, which comprises Boston, Chelsea, Revere, and Winthrop.
The findings differ sharply from the results of a study published in February by the state’s Executive Office of Public Safety and Security. It found no evidence for a pattern of racial disparity in traffic stops and reported that Black drivers were more likely to be stopped at night, when “police officers are less likely to be able to determine a driver’s race.”
Like the Vera Institute report, the statewide study also found drivers of color were more likely to be subjected to searches and receive a criminal citation than white drivers.
But while the Vera Institute study examined county-wide traffic data from the past two decades, the state study looked only at the period from February to December 2020, a time when the pandemic severely disrupted traditional driving patterns.
“This is a teaching moment, because we can look at data about the same subject, but depending on the data sets and who is asking the questions, it can be skewed very differently,” said Rollins, whose office partnered with the Vera Institute on the study during her tenure as district attorney. “We’re only as good as our data, and I believe we have an obligation to look at the numbers and see how our decisions are impacting real human beings.”
Seleeke Flingai, lead researcher on the study at the Vera Institute, a research and policy group, said the study was not intended to prove whether racial profiling or subconscious bias factor into an officer’s decision to stop someone.
“The question of whether an individual officer is biased is immaterial compared to the larger question of why we have this policy in place that puts Black and brown people at higher risk for incredibly minor things?” he said, “Especially when research suggests these types of stops have no impact on crime rates or public safety.”
Given that Black residents are significantly more likely to get pulled over for minor infractions, the recent study makes the case for eliminating 15 non-traffic-safety vehicle violations responsible for nearly half of the racial disparity in Suffolk County, a change some groups have been lobbying for.
“We know that traffic safety is achievable without police enforcement,” Catherine Gleason, public policy manager of LivableStreets Alliance, said in a statement. “Banning non-traffic-safety related stops is a clear step toward dismantling the discriminatory role law enforcement plays in traffic safety.”
In its own traffic safety report published in April, LivableStreets Alliance cited civilian workers at city or state transportation or public works departments as viable alternatives to police enforcement of traffic violations. The report also pointed to New York City, which recently implemented a “restorative justice approach” to traffic violence that seeks to educate drivers instead of issuing citations.
Sergeant Detective John Boyle, a spokesman for the Boston Police Department, said the department is in the process of reviewing the report and its recommendations.
Boston City Councilor Tania Fernandes Anderson has said she would support research into creating a “largely civilian workforce” for traffic enforcement, which she said would also reduce the number of details police officers are required to do.
“Existing practices like bias training haven’t really borne the fruit that people desire,” Flingai said. “Both for minor violations and at traffic control events like construction sites or block parties, training civilians to enforce traffic safety is the surest way to minimize harmful contact between police and communities and prevent what might be disastrous results.”