Warning signs in study of racial profiling

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A study of traffic stops by Nevada police to assess the amount of "racial profiling" raises some valid concerns, but not necessarily in the higher percentage of blacks and Hispanics being pulled over by officers.

As the study's author, University of Nevada, Las Vegas criminal justice professor Richard McCorkle points out, the meat of the survey is in what happened after the vehicle was stopped.

Carson City deputies were not part of the study, which took in Clark County, Washoe County and the Nevada Highway Patrol during 2002 and contained information from about 386,000 traffic stops.

The results showed blacks were drivers in 11 percent of the stops, although they are 6.2 percent of Nevada's population age 15 or over. Hispanics, with 17.1 percent of the driving-age population, were 19 percent of the drivers pulled over.

Whites, who make up 68.5 percent of the driving age population of the state, were drivers in 62 percent of the traffic stops.

Most of the time, police officers reported, they didn't know the race of the person before they were pulled over. And most were pulled over for legitimate traffic violations.

Although there are some warning signs in those figures, McCorkle said the base line for comparison of traffic stops has some statistical variances that may make conclusions difficult.

More significant, however, are the figures that show whites were handcuffed 2.8 percent of the time and usually detained for less time than blacks and Hispanics.

Blacks were handcuffed following 6.2 percent of the stops, and Hispanics were handcuffed 4.6 percent of the time.

In addition, while just 3.9 percent of whites were searched, the figures were 9.5 percent for blacks and 7.6 percent for Hispanics.

Interestingly, from those searches "drugs were less frequently seized during stops of blacks and Hispanics compared to whites," the study says.

We hesitate to read too much into statistics. What they don't indicate, for example, is whether police departments in Reno, Sparks, Las Vegas, Henderson and other cities surveyed have a slight problem of bias spread across the force, or a large problem of bias among a few officers.

The statistics also don't prove racial profiling. They are enough, however, to establish that there are inequities in the treatment of races by some police departments, whose chiefs would be wise to address the problems before somebody does it for them.


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