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Racial Profiling Proven in Mass.

by Bill Dedman Thursday, Jan. 22, 2004 at 11:02 AM
Dedman@Globe.com

The Globe reported last January that blacks and Hispanics statewide were 50 percent more likely than whites to be searched during a traffic stop, although whites were more likely, once searched, to be found with drugs.

Boston Globe, 1/21/2004

A long-awaited state study of racial profiling in Massachusetts has found that minority drivers are disproportionately ticketed and searched by police officers in dozens of communities, including Boston.

The widest gap in ticketing was in the town of Milton, just south of Boston. The state-sponsored study found that minorities received 58 percent of the traffic tickets in Milton while an estimated 16 percent of the drivers are minorities. In Boston, minorities received 50 percent of the tickets, but make up an estimated 33 percent of the drivers.

The study was ordered by the Legislature four years ago in response to complaints from minorities. Researchers from the Northeastern University Institute on Race and Justice examined more than 1.3 million traffic tickets from April 2001 through June 2003.

Though the results are similar to a Boston Globe examination of traffic tickets last year, the state study carries consequences: Those cities and towns where results show a large disparity between treatment of whites and minority drivers face greater scrutiny of their police departments.

The secretary of public safety, Edward A. Flynn, is required to order communities with those disparities to document more information for a year on every traffic stop, even those resulting in an oral warning. Only two departments, Boston and Lowell, collect that information now, voluntarily.

"This report provides a terrific opportunity for police departments to explore what their numbers mean," Flynn said. Only after a round of public meetings across the state will he decide which communities have to collect more information. "People should beware of gloating or scapegoating too soon." Milton, the most heavily Irish community in the state according to the 2000 census, has had a few claims of racial intolerance over the years, but has integrated swiftly.

A Milton police official did not dispute the figures on traffic tickets but said the state is overstating the disparity by undercounting the number of minority drivers in town. To estimate the percentage of drivers who are minorities, the researchers started with the census figures for each town's population. They then adjusted the figure to reflect commuters and visitors based on the demographics of communities within a 30-minute drive.

Communities with larger employment, retail, and entertainment activity are assumed to draw more people from other communities.Milton's deputy police chief, Richard G. Wells Jr. said the method does not take into account the fact that Milton is a shortcut for many drivers from Randolph, Quincy, and other areas of Boston. Wells acknowleged, however, that commuters can't account entirely for the disparity in Milton, because there is a gap -- though significantly smaller -- even when only tickets written to Milton residents are counted.

The Northeastern researchers cautioned that traffic tickets cannot identify the motives of police officers. But records can show patterns and identify disparities that should be discussed.

"The goal here is to have police departments and communities discuss whether the level of disparity is explainable," said Jack McDevitt, director of the Northeastern's institute. "If there's been a traffic accident in a particular neighborhood, and neighbors are concerned about speeding on that street and ask the police to enforce the traffic laws, if that's an African-American or Hispanic neighborhood, that would drive up the tickets."

The state law leaves to Flynn, along with Attorney General Thomas F. Reilly, the judgment of how much of a disparity should trigger additional monitoring by the state. Flynn said he would await further guidance from the state task force on racial profiling, which he appointed to advise him on his decision. The study was released at a meeting of the task force yesterday.

If a 5 percent disparity between minority share of tickets and minority share of drivers were the standard, some 80 police departments would be subject to the monitoring. That list would include the State Police. If Flynn set the bar higher, at 10 percentage points, then 28 communities would be subject to monitoring, led by Milton, Avon, Methuen, Lawrence, Boylston, Springfield, and Boston. If any disparity at all is the measure, then 249 communities of the more than 300 communities studied would be scrutinized.

The study also found disparities by gender. In Boston, for example, men received 74 percent of traffic tickets, but make up 47 percent of the driving-age population, the Northeastern researchers found. Milton showed the greatest disparity among the larger communities, with men receiving 76 percent of tickets, while they account for 46 percent of the adult population.

While some traffic researchers suggest that men are more aggressive drivers than women, the Globe reported in July another factor could be at work: Women were far more likely to receive a warning, not a ticket, when cited for the same traffic offenses as men.

The state study also looked at drivers subjected to a search for drugs or other contraband. The greatest search disparity in the Northeastern report is in the Berkshires city of North Adams, where police searched 9 percent of the whites ticketed, but 19 percent of the minorities ticketed.

The Globe reported last January that blacks and Hispanics statewide were 50 percent more likely than whites to be searched during a traffic stop, although whites were more likely, once searched, to be found with drugs.

The Northeastern study was presented to a fractious audience last night. The state task force -- composed of police officials, minority community leaders, and civil liberties groups -- has met for six months without any consensus on what level of disparity should result in a community being monitored by the state.

The lead researcher said despite that, communities should begin carefully reviewing patterns in ticketing in their own departments. "Police departments have had two opportunities to review their data now: the Boston Globe study, and our study," McDevitt said. "Those with the greatest disparities, I would think it would be in their interest to look at this issue now, instead of waiting for community members to ask why it took so long. You can't eliminate this behavior overnight."

Rankings of communities are at http://boston.com/globe/tickets

Northeastern's Institute on Race and Justice is at http://www.irj.neu.edu

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