Copyright 2000 The Seattle Times Company  

The Seattle Times

June 14, 2000, Wednesday Night Final Edition

 

SECTION: NEWS; Pg. A1

LENGTH: 2066 words

HEADLINE: Seattle blacks twice as likely to get tickets

324,000 traffic citations analyzed

BYLINE: Andrew Garber; Seattle Times staff reporter

BODY:

Copyright 2000, The Seattle Times Co.

 

Blacks living in Seattle are twice as likely as whites to be given a traffic ticket.

Blacks represent only about 9 percent of the driving-age population in Seattle, according to the 1990 census, but accounted for 18.6 percent of all stops resulting in traffic tickets from the Seattle Police Department since 1995.

A Seattle Times analysis of more than 324,000 citations issued in the past five years also found blacks get more tickets per stop than whites and are more likely to be cited for certain offenses, such as defective headlights. For example, the number of tickets issued to blacks for blocking traffic is four times the proportion of blacks in the driving population.

The proportion of African Americans given tickets dropped from 20.5 percent of all stops in 1995 to 17 percent last year.

Still, the numbers from a Seattle Municipal Court database raise questions: Do police stop people based on the color of their skin? Is there a racial bias?

Police Chief Herbert Johnson, in a written statement, said "racial profiling is not tolerated by the Seattle Police Department."

Johnson, who declined requests for an interview, said the department is doing its own study, expected to be released by the end of the summer, that looks at traffic stops, as well as tickets issued. The study "should give a more thorough and accurate picture of enforcement," he wrote.

"We remain very sensitive to the issues raised, and will do our very best to ensure that we maintain the highest standards of ethics in providing law-enforcement services to all of our citizens."

City Councilman Richard McIver wants an independent study. "If there is a disproportionality, my concern is, what is the reason for that? It might be racism. It may very well be profiling."

The city needs to find out, he said.

J.D. Miller, a Seattle police officer and vice president of the police union, said officers are not stopping people because of their race.

"The only thing we'd ever profile in this city would be crime, and certainly we do that without any regard for the person's race," he said.

Miller and other law-enforcement officials said there are likely other explanations for the numbers that have nothing to do with race, including economics and where officers are stationed.

Researchers who study racial profiling say it's too early to draw conclusions based on traffic-ticket records.

David Harris, a professor of law at the University of Toledo, reviewed some of The Times' findings. He has done extensive research on the subject nationally.

"You can't conclude it (racial profiling) is occurring," Harris said. "What you are seeing is an indication there may be a problem."

Harris and others said more study is needed, including looking at all stops made by Seattle police, regardless of whether a ticket is issued.

Racial profiling is the use of race as a reason to stop drivers. Concerns have been raised nationally that the country's battle against drug use has led police officers to stop minorities for minor violations as a pretext to search for drugs and other contraband.

Profiling has become a volatile issue.

People from across Washington have testified in front of the state Senate Judiciary Committee, complaining that police stop minorities because of the color of their skin. Gov. Gary Locke signed a law this year requiring the State Patrol to collect information on the backgrounds of people who are stopped and arrested, and whether a search was done.

Emotions about racial profiling surged after an African-American man with a history of mental illness was shot and killed by Seattle police in April.

David Walker was shot after stealing orange juice at a Lower Queen Anne supermarket and firing two gunshots in the store's parking lot. He was holding a knife and had a handgun when he was shot.

Protesters rallied outside Mayor Paul Schell's office last month complaining about a lack of progress on issues such as racial profiling and use of force by police.

Failure to use turn signal

 

Jabir Muied thinks race played a role when he was stopped and given traffic tickets earlier this year.

Muied was pulled over twice, in February and again in April, in South Seattle. "Both times, I was pulled over for failure to use a turn signal, which seems to be an excuse to pull people over for whatever reason. In my case, I thought it was simple harassment."

Muied, a 20-year-old computer technician who commutes to Seattle from Bothell, said he drives a Corvette and uses his turn signal.

"The primary reason I think he pulled me over is not only because I drove a nice car in a bad neighborhood - he figures most of the people who live in South Seattle are ignorant and you can harass them with impunity," Muied said.

"I know several people who are harassed and pulled over on a regular basis who do nothing about it."

Muied challenged both tickets in court and was found not guilty.

The Rev. Robert Jeffrey, pastor of the New Hope Baptist Church in Central Seattle, said police often stop African-American drivers as an excuse for checking other things.

"They see an African American, and they want to explore the credibility of the person to be on the street," he said. "It's a racist thing."

"African Americans are now to the point where when they get behind the wheel and see a police officer, they automatically suspect if there is any slight thing wrong, that they are going to be pulled over," Jeffrey said.

Not every black driver stopped by police feels targeted.

Oscar Alexander of Seattle was given a ticket earlier this year for having a defective headlight.

He had received a warning before getting a ticket. It was something "I should have probably gotten fixed," he said.

Still, Alexander believes race shaped the officer's attitude after he was stopped. "I'm feeling he was just harassing me."

Researchers who study racial profiling look for information on whether blacks get a disproportionate number of tickets for minor offenses.

"At a crowded intersection, if a cop sees someone run a red light, the cop goes after them. It doesn't make any difference if they are white, black or whatever," said John Lamberth, a psychology professor at Temple University.

"However, for a low-inflated tire or a brake light that doesn't work, (police) see hundreds of those before they make a stop."

The Seattle Times analysis found that blacks living in Seattle were more likely to receive tickets written for certain offenses. For example, blacks received:

27 percent of all tickets issued for equipment violations.

33 percent of tickets for not using signals when required.

33.7 percent of tickets for defective headlights.

47.3 percent of tickets for not having an illuminated license plate.

The percentages drop for other offenses. For example, blacks received:

14.5 percent of the speeding tickets.

12.5 percent of tickets for illegal U-turns.

Court records also show that blacks are issued more tickets per stop than whites. Blacks, on average, received 1.43 tickets per stop compared with 1.28 for whites.

Lisa Daugaard, an attorney with the Seattle-King County Public Defenders Office, said the proportion of tickets issued to blacks for certain traffic violations fits what she sees in her practice.

"Based on our anecdotal experience with thousands of cases that originate in traffic stops, it is clear that these data reflect what we see all the time," she said. "Some people have an inordinately high chance of being stopped for what are utterly trivial infractions."

But law-enforcement officials say there are likely other explanations. It is important to look beyond the numbers. For example, blacks may be getting a disproportionate share of tickets because there are more officers patrolling areas with large populations of blacks, said Scott Reinacher, chairman of the National Troopers' Coalition.

And maybe there are economic factors involved, he said, in terms of the ability of some blacks to afford to keep their cars in good repair. According to the 1990 census, 24 percent of African Americans in Seattle lived below the poverty level, compared with 9 percent of whites.

"The issue of race has become the trump card here," Reinacher said.

Harris, with the University of Toledo, said such arguments do not fully explain what is happening.

"You can stop everybody out there for something," he said. "The traffic code, police officers know, is their best friend. That was true 30 years ago, and it's true now."

It's important for communities to find out if racial profiling exists, Harris said.

"It's a problem of the first magnitude because it undermines confidence in the justice system and because it is a problem distributed by race."

 

Seattle Times database specialist Justin Mayo assisted with this story.

 

Andrew Garber's phone message number is 206-464-2595. His e-mail address is agarber@seattletimes.com

 

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How tickets were analyzed

 

 

The Seattle Times examined traffic citations issued from June 1995 through May 2000 to people whose last known address was in Seattle. African Americans represented 18.6 percent of all stops that resulted in traffic tickets. This is twice the ratio when compared with Seattle's racial makeup.

The driving-age population - 9 percent black - was defined as 15 years or older.

By comparison, whites accounted for about 67 percent of the traffic stops resulting in tickets but made up almost 78 percent of the driving-age population. Asians received traffic tickets in proportion to their population.

All population figures were based on the 1990 census, which provided the most reliable benchmark to estimate the number of drivers on the road. Recent estimates show the overall proportion of Seattle's population that is black increased around 1 percent between 1990 and 1997.

 

Out of a database with more than 478,000 tickets, The Times looked at 324,000 citations issued to people whose last known address was in Seattle. The analysis did not examine tickets issued to people living elsewhere.

The Times' analysis examined the number and type of traffic tickets issued but did not look at disposition of cases.

 

Top three citations given

 

Most common traffic ticket given to city residents by the Seattle Police Department driving without vehicle insurance.

 

Percentage of those tickets given to whites 60.5 percent.

 

Percentage of those tickets given to blacks 26.6 percent.

 

Second- and third-most-common tickets speeding and disobeying traffic lights and signs.

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Who gets tickets

The chart below show three things for each race: 1. The percentage of Seattle's driving-age population.

2. That race's share of traffic stops that resulted in tickets issues.

3. That race's share of all tickets issued (a stop may result in more than one ticket.

Percentage of the driving population

 

White 77.8%

Black 8.7%

Asian 11%

 

Share of stops that that resulted in tickets

 

White 67.4%

Black 18.6%

Asian 10.9%

 

Share of all tickets

 

White 65.8%

Black 20.4%

Asian 10.7&

 

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THE SEATTLE TIMES

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Where black are heavily represented

Here are the traffic tickets where the portion received by African Americans is highest. Blacks in Seattle make up almost 9 percent of teh driving-age population. At least 500 tickets were issued in each of teh categories below.

 

Percentage of total

Infraction number given

 

Unlawful use of license plates 37.05

Blocking traffic 35.94

No valid driver's license or valid ID 35.82

No lights while driving at night 35.71

No child restraint 34.03

Defective headlight 33.73

Failure to signal 33.01

Equipment violation (light, muffler, tires

brakes)

27.08

Driving without motor-vehicle insurance 26.68

No driver's license in possession 25.81