New data shows Virginia police are more likely to stop and search Black drivers

By: - May 19, 2021 12:05 am

A police car in Richmond, Va. Police currently provide the vast majority of transports to psychiatric hospitals across Virginia. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Black drivers in Virginia are almost two times more likely than White drivers to be pulled over by police and three times more likely to have their vehicles searched, according to data collected under the state’s new Community Policing Act.

The records offer a first-of-its-kind look at traffic enforcement in Virginia, even as the disparities they document do not come as a surprise.

“Sadly, the data shows what Black Virginians have known all along,” said Da’Quan Marcell Love, the executive director of the Virginia State Conference NAACP. “We’ve been saying this for years. And the question now becomes, what is the General Assembly going to do about it?”

Virginia launched the mandatory data collection in July, requiring police all over the state to begin documenting demographic data about who they stop and for what reasons. The records also detail whether a search was initiated and any enforcement action taken.

The first six months of data, published publicly earlier this month, includes details of more than 400,000 traffic stops from nearly every police and sheriff’s department in the state.

While the state’s Department of Criminal Justice Services is tasked with conducting an annual analysis of the records, a preliminary review by the Virginia Mercury shows Black Virginians bore the brunt of roadside traffic enforcement, accounting for 30 percent of traffic stops despite representing just 19 percent of the state’s population.

Hispanic drivers accounted for 9 percent of stops, about equal to proportion of the population they represent.

Non-Hispanic White drivers were less likely to be pulled over, representing 55 percent of stops and 61 percent of the population.

And Asian and Pacific Islanders were the least likely to be pulled over, accounting for just two percent of stops and nine percent of the population.

The data shows police were most likely to single out Black drivers for minor offenses like equipment violations as well as “Terry stops,” which police base on suspicion a driver is engaged in criminal activity. In both categories, Black drivers were twice as likely than White drivers to be pulled over.

Black drivers were also the most likely to have their vehicles searched, though the data suggests those searches were less likely to turn up the contraband police were looking for, with 23 percent of searches involving a Black driver ending in an arrest compared with 27 percent of White drivers.

The patterns track closely with research conducted in North Carolina, which has required police to collect similar data for years.

Police cautioned that the data is preliminary and the program is new. “It’s a slippery slope to go down, interpreting this,” said Dana Schrad, the executive director of the Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police. “People get stopped for violating the law.”

She argued that it’s often impossible for officers to detect the race of a driver before they are stopped and noted enforcement often follows public complaints about crime, speeding and other problems.

Local police officials also said it was premature to draw conclusions from the data. Police in Prince William County told the Prince William Times that they are “ready to adjust our traffic enforcement efforts if necessary” but that “it would be misleading and irresponsible to draw any conclusions at this point.” Black and Hispanic drivers accounted for more than 57 percent of stops in the county.

Bryan Kennedy, a public defender in Fairfax, questioned the suggestion that police don’t know the race of a driver when they initiate a stop, noting that while it may be true in some cases, officers also frequently describe in their reports initiating stops because a driver matched a suspect’s description.

But he agreed that the numbers are likely a reflection of where police are choosing to conduct enforcement. “It’s where police are observing people commit these traffic violations, which is communities of color,” Kennedy said.

Community leaders said targeted enforcement doesn’t excuse the disparity.

“It may not be intentional, but if you’re constantly in one community, what happens is you tend to stay in that community and you tend to over fine and fee that community, and then it becomes disproportionate and becomes bias-based profiling,” said the Rev. Keith Savage, a Baptist minister in Manassas who co-chairs Virginians Organized for Interfaith Community Engagement. “People speed everywhere, whether you live in a wealthy community or not.”

Savage said that while the data may not come as a surprise, he hopes it will serve as a jumping off point for further investigation and change.

At the state NAACP, Love was less enthusiastic about the study, saying it would have been cheaper to simply listen to Black people who have for years been complaining about disproportionate stops. But with the data in hand, he said lawmakers need to act immediately to address the problem. “If we cannot as a commonwealth stop or detain drivers equitably, then maybe we don’t need to stop folks at all,” he said. “Is having our public safety officers pull people over because they need to change a light bulb — is that the best use of taxpayer dollars?”

Del. Luke Torian, D-Prince William, who sponsored the Community Policing Act, said he’s not pursuing any immediate legislative changes at this point, but hopes local departments will reflect on the results and pursue change internally. “Now we can hopefully do a better job of policing our community,” he said.

Del. Lamont Bagby, D-Henrico, who chairs the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus, took a similar view, citing his time on the local school board as it grappled with disproportionate arrests of minority students after data made clear the extent of the problem.

He’s hoping for a similar reckoning with traffic stops. “To be frank with you, the data is important so that people will believe us,” he said.

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Ned Oliver
Ned Oliver

Ned, a Lexington native, has been a fulltime journalist since 2008, beginning at The News-Gazette in Lexington, and including stints at the Berkshire Eagle, in Berkshire County, Mass., and the Times-Dispatch and Style Weekly in Richmond. He is a graduate of Bard College at Simon’s Rock, in Great Barrington, Mass. He was named Virginia's outstanding journalist for 2020 by the Virginia Press Association.