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Pa. State troopers more likely to do optional searches for Black, Hispanic drivers than white ones

by Danielle Ohl of Spotlight PA |

A new report found PA State Police troopers were more likely to do optional searches of Black, Hispanic drivers.
Jose F. Moreno / Philadelphia Inquirer

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Black and Hispanic drivers were slightly more likely to face discretionary searches during traffic stops in Pennsylvania last year, according to a report released Tuesday that examined interactions between Pennsylvania State Troopers and motorists.

The analysis, conducted by criminologist Robin Engel and a team of researchers at the National Policing Institute, found no disparity among racial and ethnic groups for warnings, citations and arrests statewide, but found State Police were slightly more likely to search Black and Hispanic drivers than white drivers during searches where the trooper initiated the investigation based on probable cause, reasonable suspicion or permission from the driver.

These kinds of stops are rare, constituting only 2.8% of more than more than 440,000 stops conducted in 2022, but Black and Hispanic drivers were more likely to be subject to them than white drivers.

Black and Hispanic drivers were 1.9 and 1.3 times more likely to be subject to a discretionary search than white drivers, according to the report.

At a news conference on Tuesday, Engel said she is optimistic the numbers will continue to improve given their decline overtime. The disparities peaked in 2008 when Black and Hispanic drivers were 3.0 and 2.6 times more likely to be subject to a discretionary search than white drivers.

Researchers also found disparities in the rates of seizures during discretionary stops. The seizure rate for such searches conducted in 2022 is much higher in general across racial and ethnic groups than rates from between 2002 and 2010, according to the report. But differences remain.

As in previous analyses, the researchers found police most often seized items — including drugs, weapons, and money — from the cars of white drivers.

During searches based on probable cause or reasonable suspicion, where troopers had reason to believe the driver could be committing a crime, they found items to seize in 75.8% of cars of white drivers, 73.5% cars of Black drivers, and 65.1% cars of Hispanic drivers. In searches initiated only with the consent of the driver, troopers seized items in 52.4% of the vehicles of white drivers, 41.5% of the vehicles of Black drivers, and 32.9% of the vehicles of Hispanic drivers.

The 2022 analysis is the first in more than a decade after State Police ceased collecting traffic stop data in 2012.

State Police announced in 2021 that they would again have Engel independently analyze traffic stop data. The announcement followed a 2019 Spotlight PA investigation that found the department halted the practice without explanation or public notice.

Engel and her team were slated to produce their first new report by April 2022, but the researchers found the first year of data unusable because 85% of trooper stations did not record demographic information during all types of traffic stops.

This was mostly because troopers in some stations did not realize they had to complete the form for stops that resulted in only a verbal warning, Engel told Spotlight PA last year.

The newest report examines stop outcomes, but does not examine whether certain drivers are more likely to be pulled over than others. This is because the research team was unable to find a reliable benchmark to use to compare the data.

In 2022, Pennsylvania State Police made 441,329 traffic stops. Of those, officers marked 71.1% as white, 14.4% as Black, and 8.2% as Hispanic. Officers are required to rely on their perception to record race or ethnicity, a common practice among departments that collect data to better understand how an officer’s bias might affect policing outcomes.

But comparing these findings to the most readily available benchmark, residential population, is inadequate, Engel said at the news conference, because where people live is not necessarily the same as where they drive.

“It doesn’t tell you where you drive, when you drive, how you drive, what you drive, whether or not there’s an organizational enforcement in a particular community at a community’s request, whether or not there’s a DUI traffic point as part of your travels,” Engel said. “There’s a whole host of reasons why you could be stopped or at risk of being stopped, none of which is measured by the residential census population.”

Engel’s team attempted to find a better benchmark in the early 2000s with assistance from Pennsylvania State University students, who sat beside roads and interstates across the state to observe the characteristics of drivers. The results confirmed the people driving in an area are not necessarily the same as the people living in that area.

Decades of research have not produced a reliable, affordable way of finding a benchmark comparison, Engel said, so “that’s why it’s so important to take that next step and say okay, given that a stop has been made, what do we see in terms of the treatment of motorists after that stop is made and that’s the best indicator that we have.”

In the newest report, the researchers made several recommendations for State Police. They encouraged the agency to continue to refine data collection methods; assess patterns and trends in traffic stops at the troop and station levels; and enhance accountability and oversight mechanisms for trooper conduct during traffic stops, particularly those that result in a consent search.

The researchers also recommended continued study of the department’s specialized “criminal interdiction” training courses, which are designed to prevent crimes from occuring on state highways.

While citizens often demand training to address issues such as implicit bias or deescalation in policing, few studies have determined if these courses actually affect police behavior, Engel said.

“This is true across all types of police training and it’s true across the country, which is why the Pennsylvania State Police willingness for an outside research team to come in and look at and study their criminal interdiction training is quite significant,” she said.

State Police Commissioner Christopher Paris endorsed Engel’s work Tuesday and said the department would continue to use the findings to improve police services.

“I fundamentally believe in all sectors that which gets measured gets improved,” he said at the news conference. “…The fact that we can track this data over time, you know, really we think is only a positive, so I would expect our members to embrace this.”

Throughout 2022, the researchers audited the data to identify additional collection issues and ensure the number of stops officers recorded matched the stops in the department’s dispatch system.

“I am really thrilled to say the error rate is well below 10%,” Engel said Tuesday, “and for the missing data fields, it’s in the less than 1%,” well below the threshold the researchers established.

The researchers will work with State Police through 2025 and plan to provide annual reports to the department for the next two years. The four-year contract will cost State Police $696,000.

This is the second time State Police have partnered with Engel to examine traffic stop data for evidence of racial disparities. Officials initially told Spotlight PA they stopped collecting the data because the analysis, which spanned 2002 to 2010, showed no evidence that troopers conducted traffic stops based on race or ethnicity.

While Spotlight PA’s review confirmed that researchers did not find evidence that state troopers stopped Black and Hispanic people at a disproportionate rate, the analysts did find that once pulled over, troopers subjected people of color to searches more often than white people.

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