Syracuse, N.Y. — Traffic stop data released by Syracuse police show that officers disproportionately stopped Black people — specifically young Black men — over a three-month period earlier this year.
From April through June, Black drivers made up 79 percent of traffic stops by the police department. Syracuse is about 30 percent Black.
When accounting for differences in population, Black drivers are pulled over at a rate that is seven times higher than white drivers, an analysis of the data by syracuse.com | The Post-Standard found.
“That number is extreme,” said Frank Baumgartner, a University of North Carolina professor who has studied racial disparities in traffic stops. “That’s very extreme.”
The syracuse.com | The Post-Standard analysis also found:
- Police stop 12.2 Black men for every 100 Black men in the city over the course of a year. That’s a rate 6.9 times higher than white men.
- Police stop 3.3 Black women for every 100 Black women in the city over the course of a year. That’s a rate 6.7 times higher than white women.
- Despite disproportionately stopping Black people more, a higher percentage of stops of white people ended with a criminal charge: 26.1% of stops of white people ended with a criminal charge compared to 19.1% of stops of Black people.
Two Syracuse lawmakers said the data validates what many believed about the department’s use of traffic stops.
“It’s something I’ve known being a Black person growing up that I’m more likely to get stopped,” Syracuse Common Councilor Ronnie White said. “You can’t necessarily say if it’s a thing or is this in my head, but you look at this data and it’s like no man it’s not necessarily in your head. This is something that’s actually happening out there.”
The city’s new Right to Know law, passed in October, mandated that the police department release the stop-by-stop data on the city’s website. Lawmakers adopted the legislation after the murder of George Floyd sparked more than a month of protests in Syracuse and Mayor Ben Walsh put the legislation in an executive order meant to reform policing.
In all, the department included data from 1,081 stops during three months, April to June 2021. The data is largely traffic stops, but includes some other interactions with the public.
Bad drivers or investigatory stops?
The gender and race disparities in the data suggest police are using traffic stops as a pretext for other investigations, according to Baumgartner.
“If they’re trying to keep the roads safe from bad drivers and enforcing the traffic code to keep our roads safe then there wouldn’t be this gender difference,” the professor said. “That suggests it’s a pretext to have a conversation. That’s very common. That’s where the racial bias comes in.”
During a pretext stop, a tactic officers use across the country, officers pull over drivers for a minor infraction to look for other, more serious crimes.
Syracuse police have used pretext stops in the past. A now-disbanded gun recovery unit used traffic stops in an attempt to get guns out of shooters’ hands but far more often ticketed drivers for misdemeanors and minor traffic violations.
The police department did not respond to questions sent by Syracuse.com last week about the analysis of the traffic stop data. On Wednesday, police department spokesman Sgt. Matthew Malinowski said the department will respond to the questions raised by the analysis at a later date.
The department has previously defended its use of traffic stops as a way to stop crime. They say stops can lead officers to guns and drugs.
Police in other communities have previously rationalized similar racial disparities by saying that they police neighborhoods with higher crime that are typically home to more Black people.
Advocates for police reforms have decried such stops. White called pretext stops “fishing expeditions” that often don’t find much in addition to the initial reason for the stop. About 4 percent of the 1,083 stops ended in an offense serious enough to take someone to jail.
These types of stops have also been criticized by advocates as a way that citizens’ encounters with police escalate. In April, a police officer in Minnesota shot and killed Daunte Wright during a pretext stop. Wright had been pulled over for a minor traffic violation.
A database maintained by Mapping Police Violence shows that over the last four years about 10 percent of people killed by police were killed during an interaction that started with a traffic stop.
Researchers have also found such stops erode the relationships between police and people of color. A survey of Kansas City drivers by University of Kansas researchers found an investigatory stop “substantially erodes African Americans’ trust in police.” The study also found that the more investigatory stops Black drivers endure, the less they trust police.
“It provides the evidence to what people have long suspected,” Syracuse Common Councilor Michael Greene said of the data, “that the department has systemic racial biases and that’s how the department operates.”
The Guilt Gap
The traffic stop data also shows that despite Black people being more likely to be pulled over, they are less likely to be charged with a crime. Data collected during other studies of traffic stops have had similar findings.
That includes the Stanford Open Policing Project, which has collected data from more than 200 million traffic stops in the United States (about 100 million had enough data to be analyzed).
In Syracuse, 26.1% of stops of white people ended with a criminal charge and 19.1% of stops of Black people ended with a criminal charge, according to the Syracuse.com analysis of the police department’s data.
“When we see these differences by race, it means that there’s something wrong with that police officer’s calculation — that they’re systematically underestimating the likelihood of guilt of the white people and they’re systematically overestimating it for the Black people,” Baumgartner said.
That data indicates that police have a lower threshold of suspicion for Black drivers than white drivers, Baumgartner said.
Black people with a low likelihood of guilt get pulled over and white people with a low likelihood of guilt don’t get pulled over, he said.
‘De facto policy of stop and frisk’
The release of the data came after several delays of the Right to Know’s implementation. It was supposed to take effect in mid-December, but it didn’t take effect until about April. The last delay came when officers objected to having their first names, already public information, put on business cards that the law requires officers to give to people they stop and don’t charge.
Councilors White and Greene said the data backs what people have described about police traffic stops. He labeled the stops as a “de facto policy of stop and frisk.” The councilors each said they would look into what the Common Council could do to fix the disproportionate stops of Black residents.
“Absent this data,” Greene said, “we would be relying on anecdotes, which is harder to justify policy change.”
Greene said he sees the disparity as largely a management issue but that he was open to looking into best practices other cities have used. White said the council has the ability to regulate the department’s behavior, though he said he hadn’t drawn up a proposed solution.
The Common Council is set to have a Public Safety Committee meeting on Sept. 23 and plans to discuss about the Right to Know data, they said.
“When we hear about staffing shortages and the inability to respond to some complaints due to staffing shortages or staffing levels,” White said, “I’m looking at this and wondering, is there not something better we can have our police officers do than going on these pretextual fishing expeditions?”
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