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Rethinking Traffic Stops


The mayor of Los Angeles, Eric Garcetti, has ordered a police unit to roll back its use of traffic stops after an investigation found they were disproportionately pulling over black drivers. Minneapolis is also considering that after finding that half the drivers stopped there for equipment violations last year were black, even though the population of the town is less than 20 percent African-American.

Frank Baumgartner is a professor of political science at the University of North Carolina of Chapel Hill. He says studies show that a black driver is about twice as likely to be pulled over as a white driver and twice as likely to have their car searched. And he adds there is no evidence the stops depress crime.

FRANK BAUMGARTNER: About 3 percent of traffic stops lead to a search of the vehicle, and about 20 percent of the searches lead to some contraband. So essentially, what we have is a needle-in-the-haystack strategy of using the traffic laws as a method to fight the war on crime. It's been an incredible waste of effort.

SIMON: Is there a cost to relations between police and the community for making those kinds of stops?

BAUMGARTNER: When people know that they've been unfairly targeted or that the tinted windows on their car was only a pretext to pull them over for the 14th time in the last few months, they get angry, and it reduces community trust in the police. And so if it's not keeping us safe and it's alienating the people who live in the neighborhoods where the police could most benefit from the cooperation of the citizens, then it's really not a good strategy.

SIMON: You also looked at the data in a couple of North Carolina cities, Fayetteville and Durham, that tried to change their policies. What happened?

BAUMGARTNER: Well, one of the most interesting policy reforms that can happen is what we call a written consent form. That is, if an officer has probable cause to conduct a search, they can conduct that search, whether the citizen wants them to or not. But if the officer doesn't have probable cause, he can ask your permission. And it's not apparent to most citizens that they have the right to refuse that. So in a few cities, they've adopted the policy of having a written form that the driver would sign before such a consent search might take place. And so nobody signs this form. The number of consent search has dropped by over 95 percent.

SIMON: And what was the effect on crime?

BAUMGARTNER: The effect on crime in Fayetteville where this reform and other reforms focusing the traffic enforcement on truly dangerous driving was the number of 911 calls started to increase. And the crime rate was on a continual downward trend. So we think that it was very effective in enhancing community trust in exactly those communities in Fayetteville where the police need the community trust the most, which is the high-crime areas.

SIMON: Frank Baumgartner is co-author of the book "Suspect Citizens." Thanks so much for being with us.

BAUMGARTNER: Thanks a lot for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.