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Examining the Influence of Drivers' Characteristics During Traffic Stops with Police: Results From a National Survey

NCJ Number
Justice Quarterly Volume: 21 Issue: 1 Dated: March 2004 Pages: 49-90
Robin Shepard Engel; Jennifer M. Calnon
Date Published
March 2004
42 pages
This study examined police officer decisionmaking following a traffic stop, focusing on the relationship between racial profiling and America’s war on drugs.
Racial profiling is a well-known and widely-denounced phenomenon in which certain groups of people are signaled out for special treatment based solely on their race. This study probed the relationship between racial profiling as a police strategy and the Nation’s war on drugs by invoking the profiling strategies that emerged from Scheingold’s theory of the politics of law and order and Crank and Langworthy’s institutional perspective of policing. This framework describes the organizational roots of racial profiling policies and acts as a guide to examine individual police behavior. Previous research on the relationship between police officer behavior during a traffic stop and the drivers’ ethnicity are reviewed and critiqued. Data for current study were drawn from the Police-Public Contact Survey, which examined citizens’ interactions with police. The questionnaire was administered as a supplement to the National Crime Victimization Survey during the last 6 months of 1999. The current analysis includes the 7,054 respondents who indicated they were the drivers during traffic stops with police during the past year. It extends past research by examining explanatory factors for police officers’ dispositions of traffic stops. Variables included measures of officers’ actions, citizen characteristics, characteristics of the traffic stop, reason for the stop, and community and control characteristics. Results of bivariate and multivariate logistic regression analyses revealed that young Black and Hispanic men experienced an increased risk for receiving a citation, being searched, being arrested, and subjected to the use of force during a traffic stop. This relationship between race and deleterious traffic stop outcomes remained after controlling for other extralegal and legal characteristics, and the relationship was consistent and substantial. The findings further revealed that despite the increased police intervention, Black and Hispanic men were no more likely to be carrying contraband than their White counterparts. The analysis indicated that the crime-focused policies that emerged from the war on drugs have produced lasting and deleterious effects on minorities’ perceptions of, and interactions with, the police. The research was limited by the inability to measure possibly influential variables. Implications for police policy are discussed. References