After calls by the American Civil Liberties Union for an investigation into possible racial profiling of black and Latino motorists by Michigan State Police, the agency this week released a breakdown, by race, of 460,446 traffic stops conducted by troopers last year.
While the data shows the race and ethnicity of those stopped as corresponding closely with the state’s 2016 U.S. Census data, the ACLU of Michigan is pushing for a more thorough and objective analysis of the data.
"To determine whether racial profiling is occurring, it requires more than just looking at the global numbers for a law enforcement agency," said Mark Fancher, staff attorney for the ACLU's Racial Justice Project, who in January sent a letter to MSP Director Col. Kriste Kibbey Etue requesting a "comprehensive agency wide review of race and traffic stops to identify any patterns that exist."
According to Fancher, broad data sets, like the one the agency released, have room for blind spots; pockets of the agency, he explained, still could be participating in racial profiling but these factors get erased when data is aggregated together.
"Because of the overwhelming whiteness of certain regions of the state, the numbers that are coming out of those regions could offset the racial profiling that would be going on in other parts of the state that are more diverse," Fancher said, also pointing out that when an individual's race is marked as "unknown" — something that occurred in over 25,000 stops — data can be skewed.
"If you want to not create a record that shows you’re identifying people based on race, you just mark their race as unknown," Fancher said. "It can bring your numbers into line whenever you want."
Fancher's Jan. 18 letter to MSP requesting an investigation into racial profiling and traffic tickets came just over a year after the department made it mandatory for troopers to denote a person's race in their reports. This policy was implemented after the ACLU, in 2016, raised questions about a lack of reliable and consistent records for people who are stopped; a reality that left big question marks when it came to whether or not racial profiling was happening.
As Fancher explained in his January letter, the request for a 2018 investigation wasn't just due to the fact that a year's worth of data was now available but also the fact that the ACLU of Michigan had received complaints from African-American motorists who believed their race was the only reason they were stopped by troopers on I-94.
"Though the persons are unrelated and unacquainted, the experiences of two motorists are remarkably similar," Fancher wrote, detailing two incidents in fall 2016 where African-American drivers were pulled over by members of MSP's 5th District Home Town Security Team for allegedly driving too closely behind tractor-trailers.
"They were not accused of offenses that require arrest. Nevertheless, they were both asked to exit their vehicles. Their vehicles were searched and they were asked whether they were transporting drugs or other contraband. In both cases, a canine officer was called, and a dog sniffed the vehicles," Fancher said.
In response to these incidents and others like them, Fancher explained in the letter, that the ACLU made a public records request for data on traffic stops. Starting small, they asked for stops made by the 5th District team during six randomly selected Fridays in the first quarter of 2017 — the first time race would have been documented.
The records produced by MSP found that over the course of the six Fridays, "four of the more active members of that unit made stops that brought them into contact with 82 individuals." Of that group, nearly 48 percent of the people stopped — drivers and passengers — were identified as black, Hispanic or Asian and another 28 percent were identified as having an "unknown" racial identity.
While the agency prohibits troopers from asking drivers their race — allowing troopers to enter a race as unknown when they are unsure — Fancher's letter noted that 17 of the 23 racially unidentified people had Spanish surnames.
The results of the mini-investigation — the disproportionate stopping of minorities, as well as the "unknown" factor — are what prompted the ACLU to request a thorough and overarching investigation of the agency.
The data that was released Wednesday, however, is limiting, Fancher said. He believes issues like those the ACLU identified with 5th District team could be glossed over and lost.
"We would want and expect a good deal more in terms of analysis before we were comfortable that racial profiling is not going on," Fancher said, adding that the desire for a deeper analysis comes "if nothing" else than from the fact that racial profiling has been shown to exist in so many departments.
"For Michigan State Police to be alone in not having this as a problem, or concern or issue would be astonishing," he said.
A call to MPS spokesman First Lt. Mike Shaw to discuss follow up steps went unanswered.
But according to the agency's news release, there may be some further reviews of the data.
“While I’m pleased with the results of this initial review, we will continue to monitor the data for any anomalies,” Col. Etue said in the release. “Many factors are involved in the decision to stop a vehicle and these factors must be accounted for when analyzing traffic stop data.”
Fancher encouraged MSP to look toward resources outside of their own agency and to look beyond brushstroke, statewide data sets.
"We just would urge MSP that in conducting this internal review that they not limit it just to their own review of their own records, that they bring in an objective expert who can give them an accurate assessment of exactly what’s going on," Fancher said. "That would work to the benefit of both the agency and the public. It will help the agency to identify any problems that it actually has and help them to fix them, and it will give the public a good deal more confidence in the agency, regardless of the findings. "
Contact Allie Gross: email@example.com
►Make it easy to keep up to date with more stories like this. Download the WZZM 13 app now.