Racial Equity in Traffic Enforcement
Racial bias, discrimination, and injustice are endemic to U.S. traffic enforcement. To be endemic, a condition must be found routinely or with regularity, and regardless of geographic setting or transport mode, Black and brown people across America are over-represented in persons deemed by police to be suspicious and worthy of detaining, searching, ticketing, citing, and arresting, and are over-represented in traffic stops resulting in excess force, mental trauma, injury, and death. The cumulative effect of these conditions is the limiting of the dignity, quality of life, and life chances of Black and Brown people, who report more fears and concerns regarding their personal safety and the possibility of harassment by police as well as more efforts to limit how often and where travel is undertaken.
The evidence base for the “vastly different lived experiences of Black and brown people with law enforcement”—the collective experience of what Charles T. Brown has termed “arrested mobility”—comes primarily from academic researchers and investigative journalists, because there is neither a national public traffic stop database nor a requirement for local or state law enforcement to collect information relevant to the evaluation of racialized policing. The Stanford Open Policing Project, a collaboration among researchers and journalists, exemplifies this effort to fill the void in federal data and analysis. The Washington Post’s Fatal Force database is another. The lack of data collection requirements in many cases puts the onus on researchers and journalists to conduct primary data collection, prepare Freedom of Information Act requests, or pivot research questions to focus on simplified proxies.
As we do the important work to reimagine public safety and ensure safety for all, we must make a national commitment to eliminate a lack of data as an excuse for the enduring reality of racial injustice. A practical and readily available investment offering immediate returns is the realization of the power and potential of the Section 1906 Grant Program to Prohibit Racial Profiling. Section 1906 of the 2005 SAFETEA-LU surface transportation authorization established a new federal grant program to encourage the enactment and enforcement of State laws to prohibit racial profiling in highway law enforcement, and to establish motor vehicle traffic stop public databases containing racial and ethnic information about drivers and passengers. An initial authorization of $37.5 million over 5 years was made available, with the federal share at 80 percent for grants to collect and maintain traffic stop data, evaluate results, and develop programs to reduce the occurrence of racial profiling. Authorization continued under the FAST Act, with grants of $375,000 per year available for state highway safety offices—but the program has been woefully underutilized. While at least 24 states have received funding through Section 1906 since 2006, it has been estimated that less than $3 million has been distributed annually among only 4-5 states in recent years. Section 1906 was featured at the February 24, 2021 Congressional Subcommittee on Highways and Transit Hearing on “Examining Equity in Transportation Safety Enforcement,” where National Safety Council President & CEO Lorraine Martin acknowledged that “good data are foundational to making sound decisions about safety interventions and are especially important to address equity concerns” but that many states have not even applied for Section 1906 grant funding.
Connecticut has served as a national model for the utilization of Section 1906 grant funding. As Connecticut State University researcher Ken Barone described at that hearing, Connecticut has utilized the funding to implement a multi-phase framework for identifying disparities (via a universal traffic stop electronic data collection system), convening data-driven dialogue, and introducing informed interventions. Since 2015, Connecticut has analyzed racial disparities in traffic stops from 107 law enforcement agencies and found: statistically significant racial and ethnic disparities in traffic stops; over-representation of Black and Hispanic drivers in stops and searches; and a lower likelihood of finding contraband in searches of Black or Hispanic drivers. During his testimony, Barone emphasized that racial and ethnic disparities are significantly decreased when the focus of traffic enforcement is on safety (e.g., reducing hazardous driving), rather than as a pretext for crime reduction or immigration enforcement.
An updated and expanded Section 1906 grant program should be included in the upcoming federal surface transportation reauthorization as a foundational investment in the realization of a comprehensive, standardized, and readily available national database on interactions between the traveling public and law enforcement. As summarized by the Transportation Equity Caucus, Section 1906 should be updated to include stops involving travelers using all modes of transport (including pedestrians, bicyclists, transit riders), authorize technical assistance and outreach to support policy and program development, and eliminate the loophole to redirect funding for other enforcement purposes.
For too long and “too often, safety is the privilege enjoyed by a few and not a right enjoyed equitably by all.” Expanding Section 1906 is a down payment toward the weakening of the endemic nature of racialized policing in this country and an end to arrested mobility.