Did you know Spotlight PA is a nonprofit? Learn more about our nonpartisan journalism »
Skip to main content
Main content
Justice System

From the archives 2019

Racial profiling in traffic stops? We won’t know, because Pa. State Police no longer track racial data.

by Angela Couloumbis and Daniel Simmons-Ritchie |

A Pa. State Police vehicle
Courtesy of The Inquirer

The Pennsylvania State Police, the third-largest statewide law enforcement agency in the country, has stopped collecting data on the race of drivers its troopers pull over, making it far more difficult to detect bias, Spotlight PA has learned.

The change, which was never publicly announced, was made by the State Police in 2012 and has remained in place despite national attention on race and policing in recent years and the widely accepted value of collecting such data for analysis.

Comprised of about 4,700 troopers, the Pennsylvania State Police is one of only 11 statewide law enforcement agencies in the U.S. that does not collect race data during stops, and by far the largest, according to a Spotlight PA survey of all 50 states.

Similarly sized state police agencies in New York and New Jersey both collect the data.

“It makes it look like you either don’t care about disparities or you are trying to hide what the data shows,” said Christy Lopez, a professor at Georgetown Law and former official in the U.S. Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. “And that undermines police legitimacy.”

When initially asked why data collection was discontinued, a spokesman for the State Police said it was based on studies that found no evidence of racial disparities in traffic stops. One of those studies had, however, identified “racial, ethnic, and gender disparities” in how troopers dealt with motorists after they were stopped.

On Sept. 17, after being presented with the findings of Spotlight PA’s nationwide survey, State Police officials said the agency would reverse course and resume collection next year.

“We do feel that collecting this information would yield valuable statistical information for the department,” Lt. Col. Scott Price, the deputy commissioner of administration and professional responsibility, said in an email.

The agency declined a request for an interview with its leader, Commissioner Robert Evanchick. The union representing state troopers declined comment. Gov. Tom Wolf’s spokesman, J.J. Abbott, said the administration supports the State Police’s decision to resume tracking the race of drivers involved in traffic stops.

» DONATE NOW: If you value accountability journalism that drives change like this report on the Pennsylvania State Police, support our reporters and become a Founding Donor.

In June, the ACLU of Pennsylvania filed a federal lawsuit against the State Police alleging troopers were violating the law by stopping and holding people based solely on their Latino appearance. And in July, a black couple, Rodney and Angela Gillespie of Chadds Ford, told The Inquirer they were profiled and harassed by a white trooper in the driveway of their home in suburban Philadelphia. They are considering a lawsuit.

Witold Walczak, the legal director for the ACLU of Pennsylvania and a lead lawyer in the federal lawsuit, said he was unaware the agency had seven years ago stopped collecting race data from traffic stops.

“If you are serious about addressing any kind of discriminatory conduct in law enforcement, you have to keep this data — it’s absolutely essential,” Walczak said.

Across the country, 25 statewide law enforcement agencies collect data on every stop made by a trooper or highway patrol officer, Spotlight PA’s survey found. Another 13 gather information on race when a stop results in some type of law enforcement action, such as a ticket or a search. (Hawaii does not have a statewide patrol.)

Lopez, the former Justice Department official, said Pennsylvania should follow best practices and collect data for every stop, regardless of whether a warning or citation is issued. The agency should also record what happens during a stop, like whether a search is conducted and whether contraband is found.

And it needs a process for regular analysis, she said. In New Jersey, for example, where a racial profiling scandal in the 1990s led to 10 years of federal oversight of the state police, an office was created to monitor for bias and issue public reports.

“We need to know whether officers are treating people differently who are of different races, whether they are doing so intentionally or otherwise,” Lopez said.

Tracking race during traffic stops is also in the best interest of Pennsylvania troopers, she said. Not only does it build trust with the community, but it could potentially help the agency defend itself against unfounded lawsuits and profiling accusations. Ryan Tarkowski, a spokesman for the State Police, said the agency was still determining how its new data collection program would be implemented.

Questions remain about why the department stopped collecting race data in 2012.

According to archived news reports, the State Police tracked the data from traffic stops until the mid-1970s. It resumed collection in 2002 as part of a project with the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Cincinnati. Researchers involved in the project could not be reached for comment.

A report released in 2004 found “no consistent evidence” that troopers were making stops based on a drivers’ race or ethnicity. But it found what it called “racial, ethnic, and gender disparities” in how troopers dealt with motorists once they had pulled them over.

The odds of black drivers being arrested and searched, for instance, were 1.5 to 3 times higher than white drivers. The odds of Latino drivers being arrested and searched were 1.8 to 2.7 times higher. The report also noted minority drivers were “significantly less likely to be in possession of contraband compared to white drivers who are searched.”

A second report, released in 2005, found troopers had made improvements, but recommended the State Police continue collecting the data.

The decision to end the practice in 2012 was made by the State Police executive staff in place at the time, led by former Commissioner Frank Noonan, said Price, the current deputy commissioner.

In an interview, Noonan told Spotlight PA he was unaware of the change.

“I don’t remember that coming up to me," said Noonan, who was nominated by Republican Gov. Tom Corbett and who left the position in late 2014.

The policy continued under his successors, including Evanchick. It wasn’t until this week, in response to questions from Spotlight PA, that the department said it would resume tracking race.

Price said the agency could not find documentation that pointed to a single reason for ending the practice. He said the department’s current leadership believes it was driven by the cost of analyzing the data — about $140,000 per year to the University of Cincinnati — and findings that consistently showed a lack of racial bias. The cost amounts to about .01% of the State Police’s annual budget of $1.3 billion.

National policing experts said the rationale was difficult to understand.

Chris Burbank, vice president of strategic partnerships for the Center for Policing Equity and Salt Lake City’s former police chief, was skeptical that the department’s data showed no signs of racial bias. Even if true, Burbank said, that wasn’t a reason to stop collecting it to detect for potential bias.

“By that measure, if crime has gone down, do you not measure crime anymore?” Burbank said.

Price said the State Police provides rigorous anti-bias training, starting with cadets at the academy. And every patrol vehicle has a camera system that captures audio and video that is reviewed by supervisors.

“The Pennsylvania State Police does not tolerate bias-based policing of any kind,” Price said. “Fair and impartial enforcement of the law is mandated not only by written policy, but also by the culture of the department.”

According to statistics provided by the State Police, the agency has received 56 complaints of racial profiling since 2014. Of those, its own internal investigations determined only two were founded. There were 19 profiling complaints filed in 2018, according to the agency. None were sustained.

Charlotte Keith contributed to this report.

Get the top news from across Pennsylvania, plus some fun and a puzzle, all in one free daily email newsletter.