Race, Place and Racial Profiling: Using Mobile Data Terminal Data to Analyze Racial Profiling

A. Jay Meehan, Oakland University
Michael Ponder, Oakland University

Controversy over racial profiling of minority motorists by the police has called fror the examination of police practices in this area. Several studies, limited in scope and methodology, suggest that police target minority motorists for traffic stops and searches. We argue that the current research focus on recorded stops underestimates the extent of profiling resulting from police surveillance not associated with recorded stops. We propose that an examination of police surveillance is possible through an analysis of officer's mobile data terminals (MDT) queries. We examine proactiver computer queries from seven days over a two-week period, during which time a Roadway Observation Study was also conducted in a medium-size, predominantly white (98 percent), suburban community with an all-white police force of more than 200 sworn officers and bordering a predominantly African-American city. We find systematic evidence of profiling, as measured by officer's queries about African-American's vehicle and/or person. This effect is also significantly shaped by place: the likelihood of profiling increases the farther an African-American is from the City or "out of place." Interestingly, this query behavior does not lead to disproportionately more recorded stops or ticketing of African Americans with the exception of a small group of high-MDT users, representing about 10 percent of the total patrol force, whose query behavior and recorded stops are different significantly from their colleagues. Implications are discussed for sensitivity training, structuring discretion through mandatory traffic stop recording, and the role of MDT technology in facilitating profiling behavior.

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Updated 05/20/2006