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10/11 NOW investigation: State report shows racial disparities in traffic stops

Last year, thousands of people got pulled over by law enforcement in Nebraska and the Nebraska Crime Commission is taking a look at who is behind the wheel.
Published: Jun. 20, 2022 at 6:37 PM CDT
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LINCOLN, Neb. (KOLN) - Last year hundreds of thousands of people got pulled over by law enforcement in Nebraska and the Nebraska Crime Commission is taking a look at who is behind the wheel during those stops in an annual report required by state law.

The report breaks down the 299,220 traffic stops made in 2021 into race categories, compared to the group’s overall population in the state. Looking at the numbers, Black, Hispanic and Native American drivers are over-represented, with Black drivers seeing the most dramatic disparity, making up 8.3% of traffic stops but 4.9% of the state population.

Looking statewide, Black drivers make up 8.3% of traffic stops and 4.9% of the state population.
Looking statewide, Black drivers make up 8.3% of traffic stops and 4.9% of the state population.(KOLN)

“We are deeply concerned that Nebraskans of color are over-represented in traffic stops and searches,” Rose Godinez with the Nebraska ACLU said. “The trends continue to go in the wrong direction.”

The report has a disparity index. On the chart, values greater than one indicate an over-representation and values less than one, an under-representation. Black Nebraskans are at a 1.99 index, Hispanic drivers at a 1.49 and Native American drivers are at a 1.24. Drivers who are White, Asian American or identified as “other” were all less than one, meaning they were pulled over less often.

On the chart, values greater than one indicate an over-representation and values less than one,...
On the chart, values greater than one indicate an over-representation and values less than one, an under-representation.(KOLN)

The Nebraska Crime Commission didn’t do an interview but explained in the report that there’s no single explanation for the disparity and the numbers alone can’t confirm racial profiling.

“It must be noted that disparities within this report are just that, disparities.” the report said. “Disparities alone do not provide biases or instances of racial profiling. By identifying disparity, law enforcement agencies can and should make reasonable efforts to better understand disparities within their data.”

Godinez said the ACLU believes racial profiling is a problem in Nebraska.

“Racial profiling is a long-standing and deeply rooted issue in Nebraska and nationally,” Godinez said. “It occurs when law enforcement target people of color for humiliating or frightening traffic stops, detentions or arrests because of the race of the driver.”

10/11 NOW reached out to the Nebraska State Patrol, Lincoln Police Department and Lancaster County Sheriff’s Office, who all said in interviews, that they’re confident there’s no racial profiling happening in their jurisdictions.

The Nebraska State Patrol made more than 25% of all traffic stops in 2021. A disparity index for their stops shows an over-representation of Black Hispanic and Native American drivers when compared to the state population. But both the report and Col. John Bolduc said out-of-state drivers can make the numbers appear worse than they are.

This disparity index looks specifically for the Nebraska State Patrol's stops in 2021. On the...
This disparity index looks specifically for the Nebraska State Patrol's stops in 2021. On the chart, values greater than one indicate an over-representation and values less than one, an under-representation.(KOLN)

“Nothing in the numbers causes us alarm because our population is a cross-section of the country, a lot aren’t from Nebraska,” Bolduc said. “About 30% aren’t Nebraska residents, they’re coming from every state so it’d really be impossible to gather demographic data for every state but it’s still important for us to monitor and watch for trends.”

Looking at the Lincoln Police Department, Black drivers make up 13% of stops but 4.5% of the population. Chief Teresa Ewins said while the department looks at this data, they can’t rely on it alone to make a judgement.

The report shows Black people make up 13% of traffic stops in Lincoln but 4.5% of the city's...
The report shows Black people make up 13% of traffic stops in Lincoln but 4.5% of the city's population.(KOLN)

“Census data is the misunderstood data, you can’t look at it as a guide of whether or not numbers are off,” Ewins said. “We have people coming in and out of Lincoln. It depends on where we are doing traffic stops, when are collisions occurring, where are complaints coming in.”

She said by examining the reasons why officers are being sent to do enforcement in specific areas can be more informative, but overall she’s confident in her officers.

“Every type of profession has to look at what we’re doing and do I think we have a problem, I don’t think we have a problem,” Ewins said. “The numbers are consistent through time.”

The Lancaster County Sheriffs Office said their data shows a significantly smaller over-representation than state data, with Black drivers making up 6.3% of stops in 2021, compared to 4.3% of the population.

Black people make up 6.3% of the Lancaster County Sheriffs Office traffic stops and 4.3% of the...
Black people make up 6.3% of the Lancaster County Sheriffs Office traffic stops and 4.3% of the county's population.(KOLN)

“We treat everyone equally and fairly no matter what,” LSO Chief Deputy Ben Houchin said.

Looking across the state, Black, Hispanic, Native American, Asian and “other” drivers are also more likely to have their vehicles searched than White drivers. White drivers are also the least likely race to be arrested following traffic stops, though the arrest rates for Black, Hispanic and Native American drivers have gone down over time.

“I will say it is promising to see arrest rates continue to go down but there is still so much work to be done,” Godinez said.

While all three agencies said they’re not seeing concerning data, they all said they are doing the work to actively prevent racial profiling through regular anti-bias training.

“Bias comes into play whether implicit or explicit and we have to ensure we have everything in place,” Ewins said. “From policies to training, up-to-date training, we have to make sure we’re evolving as a department.”

Houchin said his deputies go back to their training every time they make a stop.

“One of the things that’s always taught is you know what you’re going to do before you even know who you’re contacting,” Houchin said.

Godinez said there are a number of ways to ensure officers, deputies and troopers are holding themselves accountable for biases.

“All agencies should have strong anti-racial profiling policies, strong complaint processes, they sure ensure they are reporting this data and doing anti-bias training,” Godinez said. “There are numerous efforts we can take and that falls on every single agency.”

Col. Bolduc said the patrol has been following those recommendations for years. He said they primarily focus on trends over time and individual officers’ records, not something available through the Nebraska Crime Commission.

“We try to identify things that stand out,” Bolduc said. “If a disproportionate number of stops are made by one officer then we can do a deep dive.”

He said they also monitor for complaints.

“In those rare cases where we get complaints we look back and ensure we’re following best practices and we have body cameras, we have cameras in squad cars,” Bolduc said. “We’re able to evaluate video, interactions and look for things like courtesy, compliance with policy and make sure we’re doing all the right things. In all cases, we’ve had we go back and determine they are doing the right things but we don’t take that for granted.”

The traffic stop report also looks at those complaints and allegations of racial profiling made by citizens to each agency. In 2021, eight allegations were made about four different agencies. In one of those cases, there wasn’t enough evidence, in another, a complaint wasn’t pursued, in four the officer was exonerated and the outcome of two complaints is unknown. The report said only one case of racial profiling has been found to be valid in the state since 2002.

The ACLU said this low number of complaints is a concern. Godinez said they encourage all departments to follow best practices for the complaint process and communicate what that process is to the community.

Godinez said preventing racial profiling should be a top concern for every law enforcement agency, regardless of their data, not just because it’s against the law.

“It is scary to be stopped because you hear of stories where it may end in ending your life, it may end in an arrest, it may end in completely over-turning your life and that’s an experience that’s too common for Nebraskans and we continue to hear that here at the ACLU,” Godinez said.

But Col. Bolduc and Chief Ewins both said at the end of the day, they have a responsibility to keep the community safe.

“When you look behind the raw data, each stop represents a behavior and represents a response and many times that results in citations, searches and arrests,” Bolduc said.

“If a violation unfolds in front of you you have an obligation to pull people over,” Ewins said. “You do.”

Read the full report here.

Last year thousands of people got pulled over by law enforcement in Nebraska and the Nebraska Crime Commission is taking a look at who is behind the wheel.

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