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Traffic stop numbers have a story to tell

By Kevin Elliott


In Michigan, Black residents make up around 14 percent of the state’s population, yet account for 37 percent of the state’s jail population, and 53 percent of the state’s prison population. Nationally, about 38 percent of prison inmates are Black, yet account for less than 14 percent of the country’s population.


Significant disparities don’t just exist in correctional facilities. A recent study done by researchers at Michigan State University found that Black drivers are more likely to be stopped, searched and arrested by police, regardless of the community the traffic stop occurs in.


While Black residents account for about 14 percent of Michigan residents, Black drivers accounted for 21 percent of all Michigan State Police (MSP) traffic stops in 2020, according to the MSU study. Researchers, led by MSU criminal justice professor Scott Wolfe, compared traffic stop data with census and traffic crash information, as well as night and day traffic stops. In nearly all cases, Black drivers were disproportionately stopped in most regions of the state, and were more likely to be searched and arrested.


In looking at total traffic stops conducted by the MSP in 2020, researchers found 74.5 percent of stops involved White drivers; 22.1 percent of drivers were Black; 2.3 percent were Hispanic; and less than one percent were Asian. White people account for about 75 percent of the state’s population of 9,965,265 residents, with 13.6 percent Black; 5.1 percent Hispanic; and 3.1 percent are Asian. About 3.1 percent of residents identify as 'other race or ethnic group.'


Researchers found Black drivers as a whole are about 80 percent more likely to be stopped by troopers than would be expected based upon their population. The MSU study, which did not look at local police departments but only Michigan State Police, found similar patterns for most of the MSP’s districts. In MSP’s District 2, which includes Oakland, Macomb and Wayne counties, with about 63 percent of residents identifying as White; 24.4 percent Black; 4.6 percent Hispanic; and 4.8 percent Asian, the study found Black drivers accounted for 47.9 percent of stops in the district – almost half of all stops – with 1.7 percent of stops involving Hispanic drivers; and .8 percent involving Asian drivers.


Wolfe and his team also compared traffic stop data to traffic-crash benchmarks to provide a reasonable estimate of the driving population, as well as those that drive in a particular community but don’t live in that community. The data again found that Black drivers were more likely to be stopped by troopers, which is sometimes referred to colloquially as “driving while Black.”


Researchers also looked at whether stops were conducted during the day or night, as it is more difficult for police officers to determine the race of a driver prior to making a stop when it is dark outside. The analysis found daylight stops were 33 percent more likely to involve drivers who are Black. However, researchers said accounting for seasonal differences in driving patterns rendered the connection between daylight and Black traffic stops not significant. At the same time, the analysis (which took place from February 7- April 6, 2020) was the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, which dramatically changed all traffic patterns.


The study also calculated violent crime rates in each of the MSP’s districts, because racial disparities in trooper behavior may be partially accounted for in violent crime rates in each area. District 2 has the highest violent crime rate in the state, with a rate of 623.1 violent crimes per 100,000 residents. Wayne County (1,­095.7 crimes per 100,000 residents) has the highest violent crime rate, and is nearly three times greater than the national average (366.7 crimes per 100,000 residents). Oakland County is significantly lower, at 193.7 crimes per 100,000 residents.


Releasing the report in January this year, Wolfe pointed out the differences between racial disparities and discrimination.


“Disparity is an observed difference in the proportion of traffic stops involving a specific group of people compared to that group's representation in another source of data,” he wrote. “Discrimination, on the other hand, involves a police officer intentionally targeting and stopping racial or ethnic minorities solely because of their group status (i.e., racially profiling people and engaging in biased stop behavior). In this way, discrimination involves intent, whereas observed disparity cannot speak to whether an officer acted with intent. This report and its findings can speak only to the extent of racial/ethnic disparity in MSP traffic stops. The data cannot ascertain whether racially discriminatory practices are occurring within the MSP.”


Mark Fancher, staff attorney for the Racial Justice Project of the ACLU of Michigan, said disparities and suspected discrimination of Black drivers has been a point of interest with the MSP for years. In June 2021, the ACLU filed a lawsuit against Michigan State Police for racially profiling a Black couple during an MSP stop in Oak Park.


“In 2016, we were contacted by several separate Black motorists stopped by the Michigan State Police,” Fancher said. “All of the stops were almost identical, where they were stopped for following too closely to a truck or a perceived violation. In each instance, they were asked to exit their vehicles and searched, a K-9 was summoned and the interior was searched and they were made to stay on the side of the highway for extended times before they were allowed to go without any citation or warning.”


Fancher said the ACLU obtained the police records from each stop and found inconsistent recording of racial identities of those stopped. That, he said, revealed MSP wasn’t collecting any racial data from traffic stops. In response to an ACLU request, Fancher said the MSP then started collecting racial data, which in turn revealed patterns that suggested racial profiling was definitely taking place.


“We asked the MSP to engage an expert to come in and determine if there was racial profiling happening, and what would be done to remedy it if there was,” he said “They resisted. They did their own study, and they came back with their own study that found Black drivers constituted 14 percent of the population, and 14 percent of stops were Black – so there was no racial profiling. I pushed back because that doesn’t account for many things, such as large stretches of the state that are white and pockets of the state that are racially diverse.”


MSP then engaged Wolfe and his group at Michigan State University, commissioning them to conduct an independent study to determine racial disparities and potential discrimination.


“We asked again for them to engage an expert to find out why this is happening, and they resisted,” Fancher said. “When I heard about Mr. Sankofa and Ms. Thomas, it wasn’t an identical situation, but it was close enough that we wanted to challenge it with litigation, if necessary.”


According to court records, Camara Sankofa and Shanelle Thomas, both Black educators, were driving home when they were stopped by a Michigan State trooper near Southfield and 8 Mile roads. Troopers claimed they stopped Sankofa for running a red light, which he denies and for which he never received a citation.


Fancher said the law requires officers to detain people in a vehicle no longer than the time needed to issue a warning or a ticket. However, he said Sankofa and Thomas were detained for nearly two hours while troopers and K-9s searched and ravaged their vehicle without probable cause. They were never ticketed as a result of the stop.


Growing up on Detroit’s East Side, Sankofa said he was familiar with police in his neighborhood who had violent – and sometimes fatal encounters – with Black men in the community.


“I knew from a young age that in order to travel or live in a community, I had to be on the right side of the law. I knew I would have to have my paperwork in order and everything would have to be straight because any encounter with police can go wayward. It could possibly go wrong. So, from growing up and knowing this, I always knew I had to be law abiding; stop at stop signs, red lights and obey the law because I didn’t want any unnecessary encounters with the police because I wouldn’t want to be a victim of police brutality, or even murder.”


Dash-cam video of the incident shows both Sankofa and Thomas being cooperative with troopers as questioned and searched them. Thomas said she purposely masked any frustration during the incident in order to prevent it from escalating.

When troopers asked to search the vehicle, the couple declined. Troopers then brought two K-9 units to the scene and proceeded to search the vehicle anyway. The subsequent treatment, Sankofa said, was insulting and embarrassing. After the search, no ticket or apology was issued by troopers.


The event has left both Sankofa and Thomas unnerved and traumatized by the fear they could be stopped and have their rights violated anytime they are driving, without cause.


“These kind of occurrences leave long-lasting effects on peoples' lives, and you wouldn’t understand it unless you experienced it,” Sankofa said.


For Sankofa, his experience with troopers and other racially motivated incidents he believes are enabled by the systemic racism that exists in law enforcement organizations.


“In my opinion, police officers should be the cream of the crop of society because they uphold, support and reinforce the law,” Sankofa said. “If they don’t follow the law themselves, then the entire society is lawless.”


In October, the couple and the ACLU settled the lawsuit with the MSP. Under the settlement, MSP agreed to pay the ACLU $200,000, of which $150,000 will go to Sankofa and Thomas. Additionally, MSP has agreed to engage CNA to conduct a Traffic Enforcement Policy and Program Analysis, to be followed by reports and possible recommendations to the MSP.


Fancher said while there are no guarantees for change, the settlement provides that the ACLU has direct access to CNA’s consultants.


“The approach they are taking – if I were using common sense – they are doing the things I would do: ride alongs with troopers, reviewing the video footage of stops. They are tasked with providing a report with recommendations. If we receive those things, it makes it easier for us to follow up. As long as we know what is available, we are in a position to encourage them,” Fancher said.


In response to the study conducted by Wolfe and his team, MSP in January 2022, unveiled a five-point plan to address racial disparities and potential sources. The plan includes hiring an independent consulting firm to review MSP policies; launching a BLUE Citizen Advisory Council, where MSP leadership will engage in open and honest conversation with leaders from communities of color; creating a Professional Development Bureau within MSP to provide training and development for enforcement members; ramping up educational opportunities, including cultural competency; and implicit bias training.


Implicit bias, or unconscious bias, refers to automatic associations people make between groups of people and stereotypes about those groups. While explicit bias is a conscious bias, implicit biases can cause people to act on racial prejudices, in spite of good intentions and nondiscriminatory policies.


“Implicit bias is in everything you do, and everyone has it,” said Michigan State Police Public Information Officer Lt. Mike Shaw. “There was nothing in the report that showed troopers were racially profiling anybody.”


Shaw said the MSP has already issued 1,600 body cams to troopers and any staff that has contact with the public in enforcement matters. Additionally, MSP has implemented a dashboard for troopers that allows them and supervisors to view traffic stop-related information in real time. The system is intended to learn and identify and adjust their actions.


“The MSP is looking at that to see if there is anything that can be done in training procedures to address disparities,” Shaw said. “The disparities exist, and the reason why isn’t clear. It could be something we can change in training or procedure, or it could be something outside the scope of law enforcement.


“First, we need to find out why they exist, and if there is something we can do to fix it. It could be other things. It may involve looking at what the public wants enforced. Patrols in Birmingham are probably very different than that in Detroit. That looks different in each community.”


Birmingham Police Chief Mark Clemence said his department doesn’t track race for traffic stops. In fact, none of the police departments Downtown Newsmagazine spoke with record race in traffic stops. Police departments in Birmingham, Bloomfield Township, Bloomfield Hills and Royal Oak record the race of a driver only when a citation is issued. These local communities have the main thoroughfares of Woodward and Telegraph traversing through their communities.


According to citation data provided by the Birmingham Police Department, the department issued 3,689 traffic tickets in 2021, with about 17 percent issued to Black motorists. The department issued only 2,680 traffic tickets in 2020, with about 16 percent issued to Black drivers. Pre-pandemic figures show little change in the distribution of tickets, with 18 percent of the 7,104 tickets issued in the city in 2019 to Black drivers.


Clemence said the population of the city swells during the work week, with residents from the larger metropolitan area visiting or traveling through Birmingham. According to the 2020 U.S. Census, 3.2 percent of Birmingham's 21,755 residents are Black.


“That’s the barometer we use,” Clemence said, in comparing population to tickets. “If you look at the makeup of those counties, its about 70 percent White and 21 percent of people of color and others. Our numbers are right at or below those numbers.”


Clemence said all 34 officers in the department are equipped with body cameras. He said the department also uses an early-warning system to identify issues internally. Further, he said the department takes complaints seriously.


In Bloomfield Hills, the percentage of traffic citations issued in the city to Black motorists was about 20 percent in 2021; 18 percent in 2020; 20 percent in 2019; 16 percent in 2018; and 15 percent in 2017. According to the 2020 Census, Bloomfield Hills has 3.45 percent Black residents out of its 4.578 residents.


Bloomfield Hills Police Captain Jeff Gormley said the department focuses on enforcement throughout the city, as well as “trouble” spots, typically near schools, residential areas, construction or anywhere police notice problems or complaints are made by residents.


“We do implicit bias training and cultural diversity training every year,” he said. “We have an outside trainer come in. It’s part of our accreditation process and best operating procedures. That training didn’t exist in the past, but it has evolved and become part of basic training. It’s part of law enforcement culture, and culture changes over time, and becomes more effective over time.”

Police in Bloomfield Township and Royal Oak provided total citations issued, as well as a breakdown of each type of citation issued. The type of violation may be of particular concern for analysts, as many believe some stops are more prone to bias. Bloomfield Township has a Black population of 7.7 percent, according to the census, out of a 2020 population of 43,983; and Royal Oak's Black population is 4.7 percent of its 57,953 residents.


Ingham County Prosecutor Carol Siemon announced this summer that her office will scrutinize cases where motorists are stopped for “non-public safety” violations. Those include a single defective taillight, tinted windows, defective equipment and similar violations. The move is one reform Siemon is implementing to attempt to reduce racial disparities in the criminal justice system. Similarly, she said her office is limiting felony possession firearms charges that carry a mandatory two-year prison sentence when not used in the commission of a crime.


The actions are part of a broader effort by the Vera Institute of Justice, an advocacy group working to end racial disparities and mass incarceration. Advocates of such changes say non-public safety stops reflect a racial bias that contribute to people of color being stopped and searched more than white people.


In Ramsey County, Minnesota, district attorney John Choi announced similar reforms, saying non-public safety stops, also referred to as pretext traffic stops, occur when a person is pulled over for a minor infraction while law enforcement seeks evidence of a more serious crime. Drivers of color, and those who are under-resourced who may not be able to afford to make needed repairs, are disproportionally subject to such stops, eroding trust and confidence in the justice system, and among law enforcement and the communities they serve.


Many of the new national efforts follow the death of George Floyd, and numerous others, at the hands of police.


“Anytime something happens at the national level, we look at it and try to learn, and have some takeaways,” said Royal Oak Police Chief Michael Moore. “We have a very tough job to do, and any time something happens nationally, there is a spotlight put on us.”


In 2018, a Royal Oak police officer shot and killed 28-year-old Antonio Gordon, a Black man, during a pursuit and altercation ending in a White Castle drive through at 13 Mile Road and Coolidge. Police said Gordon was driving recklessly and endangering other motorists before an officer blocked his car at the restaurant. Police said Gordon rammed the patrol car and another vehicle before driving at the officer on the street and being shot. Investigators determined the shooting was justifiable self-defense.


“It’s a tragedy anytime anyone loses their life, but in that instance the case was investigated by an outside agency, then investigated and reviewed by the prosecutor’s office, and then we looked at it internally to make sure there were no violations or anything done out of bounds,” Moore said. “It was found to be justified, but it was an unfortunate and terrible outcome for those involved.”


Moore said traffic is a priority in the city, with an eye on dangerous driving. The department’s training committee seeks out needed and valued training that is current with the needs of the community and its visitors.


“The more options you give someone, the better the outcome will be,” he said. “The men and women of our agency are constantly earning that community trust, day in and day out.”

Traffic citations issued by the Royal Oak Police Department totaled 7,278 in 2021, 8,251 in 2020, nearly half as many as pre-pandemic years in 2019 (15,329) and 2018 (15,822). In 2021, about 20 percent of all citations were issued to motorists identified as Black; 34 percent as White; and 44 percent unknown. Overall, the largest group represented in nearly all categories in every year from 2018-2021 were “unknown.”


In comparing moving violations from “non-public safety” stops, Royal Oak issued 604 speeding tickets (1-5 mph over) in 2021, with 34 percent issued to White drivers; 20 percent to Black drivers; and 44 percent where race was unknown. Citations written for no proof of insurance – a $25 fine with no points when proof is shown within 30 days – totaled 460. Of those, 28 percent involved White drivers; 30 percent involved Black drivers; and 40 percent unknown.


The same speeding citations issued in 2018 by Royal Oak police totaled 897, with White drivers accounting for 44 percent of violations; Black drivers 16 percent; and unknown accounting for 37 percent.


In Bloomfield Township, the percent of drivers identified as “unknown race” was significantly lower than Royal Oak, with less than four percent each year from 2021 to 2018. But, as with Royal Oak citations, the percentage of Black drivers receiving citations was lower for nearly all moving violation and higher for non-public safety offenses, where stops can be questioned.


In 2021, Bloomfield Township police issued 6,445 citations, with 63 percent to White drivers; 30 percent to Black drivers; two percent to Asian drivers; and three percent to unknown races. Speeding tickets (1-5 mph over) totaled 1,089, with Black drives accounting for 22 percent; white drivers 70 percent; Asian drivers two percent; and unknown race three percent.


However, Black drivers made up the highest percent of those cited for no proof of insurance, making up 42 percent of those citations while White drivers made up 35 percent. Margins were also closer for defective equipment citations, with Black drivers cited for 41 percent of violations compared to 55 percent for white drivers.


Bloomfield Township Police Chief James Gallagher said officers target high crime and high crash areas, with much officer discretion. In terms of pretext traffic stops, he said all officers must be able to articulate why a stop was made.


“Part of enforcement is targeting high crime and high crash areas. If an officer is in a high-end neighborhood, late at night, and sees a vehicle that doesn’t look like it belongs there, you may make a traffic stop on that – especially if it is in a neighborhood that has had a run of larcenies,” he said. “An officer must be able to articulate the reason for a stop based on facts, not bias or race. The stop could lead to other investigations, but you can’t base the initial stop on that.”

More so, Gallagher said, pretext stops have an advantage in targeted crime areas. As with an out-of-place vehicle in a high-end neighborhood, he said a White driver in a high-crime, urban community is likely to be stopped where neighbors are complaining of suburban kids looking to purchase drugs.


“With most pretext stops, the community hasn’t explained what the problem is, so there is a lack of transparency of what we are doing and what we are looking for,” Gallagher said. “Cars carrying certain things tend to drive perfect, so if you stop that car, that’s where we often fail in saying we have a target in the area.”


Gallagher defended the right to continue pretext stops as part of good police work. He acknowledged officers may need to use better discretion when issuing citations for what others describe as non-public safety infractions.


“If someone is stopped for defective equipment, that is where officers have discretion. Sometimes a person may not have the money to fix the car, or something else may be happening,” he said. “That is where we have to be better at recognizing people’s situations. At what part of their story are we entering their lives?”

Oakland County Sheriff Michael Bouchard said what some people feel are petty infractions often lead to much more important cases. He cited the April 19, 1995, traffic stop for a license plate violation in Oklahoma that resulted in the ultimate capture of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh.


“There’s a big push on the national level to nationalize policing, and it’s wrong,” Bouchard said. “A lot of people pushing these things have no clue what they are talking about in terms of what actually happens in policing – they should ride two full shifts. Everyone seems to be an expert because they have access to the internet.”


Rather than remove tools available to officers, Bouchard said there is a need for increased training, and ensuring agencies are in tune with community needs and desires.


“You must be very in tune and sensitive to community needs and localization,” he said. “Everyone deserves to feel served and protected, and how you do that may vary. We understand there are historic reasons that many communities feel police aren’t there for them, and you go out of your way to help them understand that you are.”


Watoii Rabii, an assistant professor of criminal justice at Oakland University, said addressing the history of racism and oppression from the beginning of slavery in America is an important step to addressing racial disparities in criminal justice and society as a whole.


“Think historically as police as an agent of the state and of racial social control. You can’t understand the police today without understanding slave patrols and the Texas Rangers,” Rabii noted. “Whether it was slavery or breaking up and suppressing certain forms of unions or surveilling immigrant communities, there is a history of social policing in marginalized neighborhoods.


“The disparities we see are all the consequence of the same problem: systemic and structural racial inequality,” Rabii said. “With racially-just policing, you would see more community trust.”


However, Rabii said police alone cannot fix the larger societal issue of inequality and racism.


“There isn’t one fix,” he said. “One thing that helps is really good training that gets to the core of racism and policing, as well as implicit bias. … Outside of the culture of policing, and going back to how communities are segregated, we have to ask how we can invest in communities in terms of social services and education, (and) neighborhood reinvestment. We have to think about community investment.”

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