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Michigan State Police finds racial disparities in traffic stops; Outlines 5-point action plan

An independent report on Michigan State Police traffic stops in 2020 found that troopers disproportionately pulled over Black drivers.

CHARLOTTE, Mich — The Michigan State Police is taking proactive steps to figure out why there are racial and ethnic disparities in their traffic stops.

In 2017 the ACLU asked the department to capture racial and ethnic demographic data in traffic stops, which they did. In 2020 the department analyzed traffic stop information noticed that there were disparities in who got pulled over. 

That's why they decided to partner with an outside Michigan State University School of Criminal Justice to look deeper into the issue.

MSP released their findings Wednesday and revealed that Black drivers were disproportionately stopped more than expected based on census data benchmarks. 

Michigan State Police Director Col. Joe Gasper hosted a news conference alongside the lead author of the study, Associate professor in the School of Criminal Justice at Michigan State University, Dr. Scott Wolf.

"On behalf of the entire department, I pledge immediate action to identify and enact solutions. Michiganders deserve unbiased policing, transparency, and accountability from their state police. And that is what they are going to get," Col. Joe Gasper said and announced a 5-point plan to address the disparities.

MSP's 5-point response plan:

  1. Hiring an independent consulting firm to review MSP policies with an eye toward making recommendations for systemic changes that will address racial disparities.
  2. Launching a statewide listening and engagement effort, in partnership with the Bridges to B.L.U.E. Citizen Advisory Council, in which MSP leadership will engage in open and honest conversation with leaders from communities of color, surfacing problems and finding solutions together. 
  3. Making more data available to MSP troopers through a dashboard that will provide real-time traffic stop data so they can learn about and adjust their actions. 
  4. Ramping up educational opportunities for troopers and recruits through the creation of the department's Professional Development Bureau. This new bureau will provide training and development for enforcement members on familiar topics, as well as on new and emerging topics including mental health, wellness, de-escalation, cultural competency, decision-making, implicit bias and communication skills.
  5. Issuing body worn cameras to all enforcement members who could have enforcement contact with Michigan residents and visitors. 

Racial and ethnic disparities study results

The findings of Dr. Scott Wolf and his team at MSU determined that there are observed disparities in traffic stops based on ethnicity and race. He noted that these findings do not imply that there is discrimination in the department against specific races and ethnicities, because it is difficult to determine intent based only on the data presented. But, the findings do show a meaningful level of disparity that requires further investigation.

The study used several benchmarks to come to their conclusions. They compared the racial distribution of traffic stops to the racial distribution of other sources of data that are unrelated to police activity and found that African American drivers are more likely to be stopped, while Hispanic and Asian drivers are less likely to be stopped. They also compared traffic stop data against traffic crash data and determined that African Americans are more likely to be stopped. 

And finally, they found that when African American and Hispanic drivers were stopped, they were significantly more likely to be searched and arrested.

Dr. Wolf and his team plan to conduct a similar study and provide another report for MSP with regards to traffic stop data in 2021. They also plan on doing a more in-depth study of the traffic stop data to attempt to learn more details about the disparities in race and ethnicity.

The new evaluation will be the first of its kind conducted by a third party into a state police force and hopes to provide MSP with an understanding of the disparity of their stop data and whether they can mitigate it. The new evaluation is expected to be used by other police forces across the country.

See the executive summary of the study here:

“When officers violate the public’s trust, they must be held accountable,” Col. Joe Gasper said near the end of the press conference.

Attorney General Dana Nessel released a statement on the findings, saying, "Col. Gasper’s commitment to addressing these findings is also a commitment to leading by example. All law enforcement agencies should be willing to examine their practices in an effort to improve their relationship with the people they serve—effective public service cannot be reached without constructive reflection. I appreciate the brave members of our law enforcement community and know today’s announcement will lead to positive change."

In Grand Rapids, city commissioner Robert Womack says the plan is a good first step towards change.

"Them admitting it and admitting that they need to make a change is the biggest step forward that we've had in a long time," says Womack.

But he also believes there is plenty of work to be done.

"They spent a lot of money to research the things that we already know are happening if you live in an African American community," says Womack. "It's going to take more than a five-point plan to erase some of the racism that's been going on in law enforcement for decades and a century."

Womack hopes the MSP will eventually sit down with local leaders of color to collaborate on ideas.

"And put our ideas together and really work with law enforcement to make community and police relationships better," says Womack.

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