13News Now investigates: Does race play a role in traffic stops?

The debate has come to a head when recent high-profile stops escalated to violence and in some cases, death

NORFOLK, Va. (WVEC) -- Does race play a role in traffic stops? The question has been out there for a long time, and the ensuing debate seemed to come to a head recently when high-profile stops escalated to violence.

In some cases, the stops ended in death.

The conversation on the topic became especially heated when Diamond Reynolds went live on Facebook during a traffic stop in Minnesota. A police officer shot her boyfriend, Philando Castile. His blood-soaked body lay next to her.

“Oh, my God, please don't tell me he's dead," she said.

The incident sparked outrage and allegations of racism.

“Would this have happened if those passengers, the driver, the passengers, were white?” asked Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton, responding, “I don't think it would have.”

Researchers are deepening the nationwide conversation about race and traffic stops with the addition of data. Since 2015, The Stanford Open Policing Project has collected millions of records of state police traffic stops from across the country.

13News Now examined the project's data for millions of state police traffic stops in Virginia, concentrating on stops in Hampton Roads for the past six years.

The data for our area shows that roughly half of all stops were of white drivers. When we consider the racial makeup of the driving-age population, however, we gain better insight, and we can look at the rates at which individual races were stopped.

The data shows, in general, troopers stopped black drivers at nearly twice the rate of white drivers.

Who is making those stops?

For that, we looked at the races of the officers involved.

We found that black troopers stopped black drivers at a higher rate than white troopers. On the reverse side, white troopers stopped white drivers at a higher rate than black troopers.  

Black troopers stopped black drivers at a higher rate than white troopers did:

  • For every 100 stops by black troopers, 43 drivers were black.*
  • For every 100 stops by white troopers, only 40 drivers were black.*

On the reverse side, white troopers stopped white drivers at a higher rate than black troopers did:

  • For every 100 stops by white troopers, 52 drivers were white.*
  • Fore every 100 stops by black troopers, only 48 drivers were white.*

“Right now, they say we target everybody,” said former Norfolk police officer Michael McKenna, when asked to make sense of the information.

The geographic area a law enforcement officer covers can be a factor in the people he/she stops and can shape data as those stops relate to race.

“If I'm assigned to work a certain neighborhood, I have to stay,” McKenna explained. “I can't leave. That's my district. If it happens to be an all-minority district, then I'm going to stop minorities.”

McKenna, who is now the local union representative, said when officers stop someone for running a red light or for any traffic infraction, they often can't see who is driving, initially.

“I've been on 35 years, and I've been around a long time, and I've seen a lot of stuff, mostly in patrol,” McKenna stated. “I've never met any police officer who targeted certain races.”

We reached out to Virginia State Police (VSP) for a response to this story. The Stanford Open Policing Project said its data came from state patrol figures.

VSP Public Relations Director Corinne Geller wrote:

"Cultural diversity training is mandated through the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services (CJIS) and has been an integral element of training for the Virginia State Police for several decades. In recent years, the Department has complemented that training with Fair and Impartial Training in line with the recommendations presented in the President's Task Force on 21st Century Policing."

*NOTE: Drivers of racial backgrounds other than black and white were among those stopped in the grouping of 100 referenced in this story.

© 2017 WVEC-TV


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