1. Law Enforcement
Disparities Within Traffic Stops
Contact with law enforcement, particularly at traffic stops, is often the most common interaction people have with the criminal legal system.
According to a large-scale analysis of racial disparities in police stops across the United States, “police stop and search decisions suffer from persistent racial bias.” The study, the largest to date, analyzed data on approximately 95 million stops from 21 state patrol agencies and 35 municipal police departments across the country. The authors found Black drivers were less likely to be stopped after sunset, when it is more difficult to determine a driver’s race, suggesting bias in stop decisions. Furthermore, by examining the rate at which stopped drivers were searched and turned up contraband, the study found that the bar for searching Black and Hispanic drivers was lower than that for searching white drivers.
The study also investigated the effects of legalization of recreational cannabis on racial disparities in stop outcomes—specifically examining Colorado and Washington, two of the first states to legalize the substance. It found that following the legalization of cannabis, the number of total searches fell substantially. The authors theorized this may have been due to legalization removing a common reason officers cite for conducting searches. Nevertheless, Black and Hispanic drivers were still more likely to be searched than white drivers were post-legalization.
Data Collection Requirements in Statute
At least 23 states and the District of Columbia have laws related to or requiring collection of data when an individual is stopped by law enforcement. Some of these laws specifically prohibit racial profiling or require departments to adopt a policy to the same effect. Collection of demographic data can serve as a means of ensuring compliance with those provisions or informing officials on current practices so they can respond accordingly.
States have employed many reporting or other requirements for evaluation of the data collected under these laws. For example, Montana requires agencies to adopt a policy that provides for periodic reviews to “determine whether any peace officers of the law enforcement agency have a pattern of stopping members of minority groups for violations of vehicle laws in a number disproportionate to the population of minority groups residing or traveling within the jurisdiction…”
Maryland’s law requires local agencies to report their data to the Maryland Statistical Analysis Center. The center is then tasked with analyzing the annual reports from local agencies and posting the data in an online display that is filtered by jurisdiction and by each data point collected by officers.
The amount and kind of data collected also varies state by state. Some states leave the specifics to local jurisdictions or require the creation of a form based on statutory guidance, but most require the collection of demographic data including race, ethnicity, color, age, gender, minority group or state of residence. Notably, Missouri’s law requires collection of the following 10 data points:
- The age, gender and race or minority group of the individual stopped.
- The reasons for the stop.
- Whether a search was conducted because of the stop.
- If a search was conducted, whether the individual consented to the search, the probable cause for the search, whether the person was searched, whether the person’s property was searched, and the duration of the search.
- Whether any contraband was discovered during the search and the type of any contraband discovered.
- Whether any warning or citation was issued because of the stop.
- If a warning or citation was issued, the violation charged or warning provided.
- Whether an arrest was made because of either the stop or the search.
- If an arrest was made, the crime charged.
- The location of the stop.
State laws differ as to what kind of stop triggers a data reporting requirement. For example, Florida’s law applies to stops where citations are issued for violations of the state’s safety belt law. While Virginia’s law is broader, requiring all law enforcement to collect data pertaining to all investigatory motor vehicle stops, all stop-and-frisks of a person and all other investigatory detentions that do not result in arrest or the issuance of a summons.
Cultural Competency and Bias Reduction Training for Law Enforcement
At least 48 states and the District of Columbia have statutory training requirements for law enforcement. These laws require law enforcement personnel statewide to be trained on specific topics during their initial training and/or at recurring intervals, such as in-service training or continuing education.
In most states, the law simply requires training on a subject, leaving the specifics to be determined by state training boards or other local authorities designated by law. However, some states, such as Iowa and West Virginia, have very detailed requirements and even specify how many hours are required, the subject of the training, required content, whether the training must be received in person and who is approved to provide the training.
Overall, at least 26 states mandate some form of bias reduction training. Find out more about these laws on NCSL’s Law Enforcement Training webpage.
Law Enforcement Employment and Labor Policies
States have also addressed equity and accountability in policing through certification and accountability measures and hiring practices.
For example, a 2020 California law (AB 846) changed state certification requirements by expanding current officer evaluations to screen for various kinds of bias in addition to physical, emotional or mental conditions that might adversely affect an officer’s exercise of peace officer powers. The law also requires the Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training to study, review and update regulations and screening materials to identify explicit and implicit bias against race or ethnicity, gender, nationality, religion, disability or sexual orientation related to emotional and mental condition evaluations.
In addition to screening, the California law requires every department or agency that employs peace officers to review the job descriptions used in recruitment and hiring and to make changes that deemphasize the paramilitary aspects of the job. The intent is to place more emphasis on community interaction and collaborative problem-solving.
Nevada (AB 409), in 2021, added to statutory certification requirements mandating evaluation of officer recruits to identify implicit bias on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, physical or mental disability, sexual orientation or gender identity expression. That same year, Nevada also enacted legislation (SB 236) that requires law enforcement agencies to establish early warning systems to identify officers who display bias indicators or demonstrate other problematic behavior. It also requires increased supervision, training and, if appropriate, counseling to officers identified by the system. If an officer is repeatedly identified by the early warning system, the law requires the employing agency to consider consequences, including transfer from high-profile assignments
or other means of discipline.
Another area of interest for states has been hiring a more diverse workforce in law enforcement and support agencies. For example, New Jersey SB 2767 (2020) required the state Civil Service Commission to conduct a statewide diversity analysis of the ethnic and racial makeup of all law enforcement agencies in the state.
Finally, at least one state addressed bias in policing through a state civil rights act. Massachusetts (SB 2963) established a state right to bias-free professional policing. Conduct against an aggrieved person resulting in decertification by the Police Office Standards and Training Commission constitute a prima-facie violation of the right to bias-free professional policing. The law also specifies that no officer is immune from civil liability for violating a person’s right to bias-free professional policing if the conduct results in officer decertification.
Disproportionality of Native Americans in the Justice System
According to the U.S. Department of Justice, from 2015 to 2019, the number of American Indian or Alaska Native justice-involved individuals housed in local jails for federal correctional authorities, state prison authorities or tribal governments increased by 3.6%. Though American Indian and Alaska Natives make up a small proportion of the national incarcerated population relative to other ethnicities, some jurisdictions are finding they are disproportionately represented in the justice system. For example, in Pennington County, S.D., it is estimated that 10% to 25% of the county’s residents are Native American, but they account for 55% of the county’s jail population. Similarly, Montana’s Commission on Sentencing found that while Native Americans represent 7% of the state’s general population, they comprised 17% of those incarcerated in correctional facilities in 2014 and 19% of the state’s total arrests in 2015.