A black GMC switches lanes without signaling. Lt. Robert Kempf activates his lights and speeds up to the car. He catches a glimpse of the driver’s face in the SUV’s rearview mirror and calls in to dispatchers: “White male.”
Cherry Hill Police Department
Cherry Hill, N.J.
A silver Acura with its top brake light out slows to a stop. Sgt. Joseph Greenwalt follows the car and pulls it over. He looks up the driver in the system, but does not report the driver’s race or ethnicity.
Southern Chester County Regional Police Department
New Garden, Pa.
Both drivers are pulled over for minor infractions. Both are sent off with verbal warnings. Only one driver’s race is noted and included in a monthly review of stops to monitor for bias or racial profiling.
Patrolling for bias
Patrolling for bias
Nobody enjoys being pulled over.
But drivers of color often wonder whether how they look played a role in an officer’s decision to stop them — a fear that can influence their actions and demeanor.
“You always think: ‘Did he think I look suspicious?’ ” said Rafael Guzman Jr., 30, a Latino who lives in Pennsauken, Camden County, and was stopped last month for speeding.
Departments that track the race of drivers establish an important early warning system that can catch bias in officers’ stops, allow supervisors to take action, and make drivers less vulnerable to being singled out or unfairly treated.
The practice can help build trust with communities, experts say, with the act of collecting and analyzing the data being seen as a willingness to confront potential problems. When the data don’t show a problem, as happens in many cases, it can reassure the public that policing is being done fairly and help protect officers from accusations of bias.
But many departments choose not to track this information. The federal government doesn’t mandate it, and only 10 states do. Pennsylvania and New Jersey are not among them.
“Every single police department in this country should know who they're stopping and what happens after that stop,” said Christy Lopez, who worked at the U.S. Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division from 2010 to 2017, leading the investigations into police behavior in Ferguson, Mo.; Chicago; and Newark, N.J. “So I don't see it as best practice at all, I see it as a basic police practice that everyone should be doing.”
Philadelphia police know the race of every driver they pull over, but across Cobbs Creek, Upper Darby police don’t. Evesham and Cherry Hill know; just miles down I-295 South, Paulsboro police don’t. New Jersey State Police do; Pennsylvania State Police don’t.
The Inquirer and Daily News asked the municipal police departments in Bucks, Burlington, Camden, Chester, Delaware, Gloucester, Montgomery, and Philadelphia counties, along with Pennsylvania and New Jersey state police, whether they require officers to log the race of every driver they pull over.
Of those 264 agencies in the eight-county region, 113 — or 43 percent — mandate it. While Philadelphia’s 1.5 million residents are patrolled by a department that tracks race, most people in counties surrounding the city — more than 2 million of the 3.8 million — are patrolled by police that don't always track the race of stopped drivers.
Most police departments in the Philadelphia region don’t track the race of all drivers they stop. Does yours?
“It’s odd to think that we don’t know much at all about what goes on in traffic stops,” said Scott H. Decker, an Arizona State University professor who analyzes police stops for Missouri. “And it’s the most frequent interaction, certainly, between citizens and police.”
Legally, police can’t just pull over any driver they see. They’re supposed to have reasonable suspicion that a crime or infraction has occurred. For example, if they see a car speeding, rolling through a stop sign or swerving across lanes, or notice an expired registration or inspection, or spot a driver on the phone.
Drivers sometimes suspect police have more insidious reasons and question whether the law is applied fairly.
Drivers of color are more likely than white motorists to believe that a stop was illegitimate, or that police pulled them over because of race, study after study has shown. The data, when collected, sometimes support those fears: Some departments nationwide have found they disproportionately stop drivers of color or more often let off white drivers with warnings.
Of dozens of drivers interviewed for this story outside local gas stations and rest stops and through community groups, the black and Hispanic drivers who felt they had been profiled recounted stories from which certain themes emerged: Confusion about why they were stopped, little or no explanation from officers, invasive car searches that turned up nothing illegal. The drivers say the experiences can be humiliating and shape their fear and mistrust of police.
“It makes us look like we're doing something wrong, or we're not who we seem to be,” said Terrell Crumpton, 27, a black man from Philadelphia who recalled feeling embarrassed after a daytime stop in the city’s Kensington section several years ago. Crumpton said he was being driven by a coworker when police pulled them over, ordering them out of the car. An officer searched the car and tossed papers around inside as residents watched from their stoops.
The officer found nothing and let the men go, Crumpton said, but it still upset him: “Nobody wants that type of stigma behind them.”
In the suburbs, Winslow Township police in Camden County pulled over Kenneth Scott 14 times in 2013 for minor violations such as having too dark a tint on the windows of his baby blue Ford Crown Victoria.
“When I see a police officer, my heart drops,” said Scott, 27, a black man from the township. He said he felt harassed by the stops, two of which happened on back-to-back days: “It bothered me so bad, I had to end up getting rid of the car.”
Drivers of color say they have to follow certain rules when pulled over: Keep your hands visible, make no sudden movements, don’t argue.
Tina Truitt, 45, a black woman from Cherry Hill, Camden County, teaches those lessons to her 22-year-old son and 17-year-old daughter, but still fears what could happen.
“You can follow all the commands and everything they tell you do,” she said. “And you still don’t know what’s going to happen.”
A recent study of police body camera footage in Oakland, Calif., found that officers spoke less respectfully to black drivers than white drivers, who were more likely to hear apologies and phrases such as “thank you.” Black drivers, the Stanford University researchers found, were more likely to hear “dude,” “bro,” and commands such as “hands on the wheel.”
Graphic video recordings of black men killed during stops that started out as routine have stoked national conversations about race and policing.
The 2014 shooting death of Brandon Tate-Brown by Philadelphia police, who said the 26-year-old was pulled over because his rented car’s headlights were out, sparked outrage and protests. Police initially said Tate-Brown was shot while reaching into the car for a gun wedged next to the passenger seat, but later acknowledged Tate-Brown was behind the car when an officer shot him in the back of the head.
The officer said he was trying to prevent Tate-Brown from getting to the gun. The District Attorney’s Office did not charge the officer. Tate-Brown’s family said the shooting was racially motivated and filed a civil suit, which is ongoing.
In 1998, troopers on the New Jersey Turnpike in Mercer County stopped a van for speeding and opened fire after it went into reverse, which the driver later said was an accident. Three of the four unarmed black and Hispanic men inside were wounded.
The troopers later said in court that superiors had taught them to stop people based on race and that drivers of color were more likely to have drugs. The shooting exposed a broader pattern of discriminatory traffic enforcement by the state police, which in 1999 entered into an agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice that required troopers to track the race of every driver pulled over. The goal: “Establish real safeguards against racially discriminatory stops.”
Who’s asked to step out of the car?
Black and Hispanic drivers were much more likely than white drivers to be asked to exit their vehicles by New Jersey State Police from July 1, 2014, through December 31, 2014, according to the most recent report on NJSP stops. Once stopped, an average of 4.9 percent of drivers are asked to get out of their vehicles.
Since then, other police departments across the nation began collecting the data, which allowed them to find disparities in who was pulled over and what happened next. Some changed policies or training in response. Since the federal agreement with New Jersey State Police ended in 2009, the agency has continued to track the races of stopped drivers and analyze them in public reports.
All police in Burlington County have been required to collect racial data for more than a decade, and Camden County instituted a requirement in 2013. California and Rhode Island passed laws in 2015 requiring police departments to log stopped driver demographics, and other states have considered similar legislation.
At the federal level, U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez (D., N.J.) has pushed for a national requirement since 1999 and recently introduced new legislation that would include such a mandate. The Trump administration, however, has advocated reducing the role of government in everyday policing. The U.S. Department of Justice declined to comment for this story.
Ronald L. Davis, who led the DOJ’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services from 2013 until Trump assumed office, said collecting the data, whatever the results, can help repair frayed connections between police and historically marginalized communities of color.
“There is still a lot of mistrust, and the way to build trust is the acknowledgement of history, the acceptance of responsibility to address it, and the professional wherewithal to understand that open data, good news or bad, is a way to build trust,” said Davis, who is black and grew up in Philadelphia, where his father was a police captain. Davis also led President Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, which recommended police track and analyze demographic data from stops.
To be clear, the data do not always indicate a problem. West Chester Police in Chester County found last year that they had no disparity in outcomes of stops: White drivers made up a consistent proportion, about 80 percent, of traffic citations, written warnings, and verbal warnings. The department releases annual reports with statistics on traffic stops.
Lower Gwynedd Police in Montgomery County in January rolled out new anti-bias training and began monthly reviews of the demographics of officers’ stops as part of a reexamination of department policies.
In Cherry Hill, the department’s internal affairs unit reviews officers’ stops each month and flags them if the percentage of drivers of a certain race is higher than normal. The data is sent to supervisors and an investigation is launched if racial profiling is believed to have occurred. Chief William Monaghan said no cases have risen to the level of investigation, because disparities flagged have had explanations such as specific patrol assignments or the area an officer covers.
In departments that don’t track race on every stop, chiefs say they trust their officers, train to high standards, and don’t receive complaints about profiling. In other words: Nothing’s wrong.
“We’re not mandated, and we don’t have a problem,” said Michael J. Chitwood, superintendent of police in Upper Darby, Delaware County. “So we don’t do it.”
“We do not — and I’m going to use that bad term — profile anybody,” said Anthony Wojciechowski, chief of Newtown Borough in Bucks County. “We don’t care who you are. We stop you and write you a ticket.”
Departments may not have outward signs of problems, experts say, but a lack of data on drivers’ race can leave officers vulnerable to questions of bias.
“You’re missing a lot,” said David Rudovsky, a Philadelphia civil rights attorney and senior fellow at the University of Pennsylvania Law School. “I don’t think you can put your head in the sand and say, ‘Well, we’re beyond race, and we’re not going to keep that data.’ ”
Cherry Hill Police Chief
For one thing, waiting for a complaint doesn’t always identify a problem. Drivers who feel profiled or mistreated may not file complaints for a variety of reasons: skepticism that police will properly investigate themselves, fear of retribution, or worry that the process will be time-consuming.
To be effective, the data also have to cover all stops, experts say. Many departments collect drivers’ race only on stops that result in a penalty such as a ticket or arrest.
Officers generally have discretion in determining outcomes of stops. Tracking race on only a portion of them gives an incomplete picture of whether similar offenses result in similar punishment.
“Let’s be honest with each other here: I’m not out on the traffic stop, nor am I in the officer’s head, nor am I omniscient to see what’s going on to what exactly helps an officer make a charging decision,” said Southern Chester County Regional Police Chief Gerald R. Simpson, whose department expanded its tracking of race from tickets to all stops after speaking to the Inquirer and Daily News. “So how else am I going to understand, if not to have information to capture that in some manner?”
Pennsylvania State Police discovered a racial gap when troopers tracked race in the early 2000s: White drivers were more likely to receive warnings, while black and Hispanic drivers were more likely to be searched, ticketed, and arrested.
Who receives warnings versus tickets?
An analysis of the 327,120 traffic stops made by Pennsylvania State Police from May 1, 2002, through April 30, 2003, found that white drivers were more likely to receive warnings than black and Hispanic drivers, who were more likely to be searched, ticketed, and arrested.
As a result, Pennsylvania troopers underwent additional training on drug searches. The state police later concluded no racial disparities existed in its stops and in 2012 stopped tracking the race of most drivers.
More recently, law enforcement agencies from California to Vermont have found they search more black and Hispanic drivers than white drivers, even though white drivers are more often found with drugs.
Police also have been suspected of profiling pedestrians they stop. Philadelphia police have been accused of humiliating and unconstitutionally stopping people. Suburban and rural departments stop pedestrians less frequently, and some departments track the race of stopped drivers but don’t do it for pedestrians.
Departments that don’t log the race of stopped drivers raise a variety of concerns, from collecting the data (isn’t it cumbersome?) to trusting it (how do you know someone’s race?) to using it (what do you do with these numbers?). Officers also may complain or criticize when a new policy to track race is implemented, said Lopez, the former Justice Department lawyer.
The actual logging of race is simple, say researchers and police chiefs whose departments do it: Just type it into the in-car computer or call it in to dispatchers. Most officers already do this with basic details of a stop, such as the location and license number.
Former DOJ attorney who led several high-profile investigations into police departments
It’s best for officers to guess a driver’s race, rather than ask for it, experts say. That’s because any profiling or bias would be based on perceived — not actual — race.
Some agencies, such as New Jersey State Police, have officers log the driver’s perceived race before stepping out of the car. Officers can update the information after speaking to the driver, but many agencies store both the officer’s initial guess and the corrected one.
“You do the best you can,” Cherry Hill Lt. Robert Kempf said the day he stopped an SUV for not using a turn signal. Kempf said he could have been mistaken — maybe the driver he saw simply as white turned out to be white Latino, or a light-skinned black man. In that case, he would have called in the correction.
Like other departments, Cherry Hill also allows officers to mark “Unknown,” though it’s rarely used.
Some departments, such as Upper Gwynedd in Montgomery County, use a simple binary: white and minority.
“I do not have my officers try to figure out the specific minority of a person,” Chief David Duffy said. “So, it is either W or M.”
Analyzing the data, once collected, can get tricky.
Not everyone drives, so police can't simply compare their data to Census demographics on their town. Plus, outsiders may commute in or travel through, and drivers on the road change hour to hour and season to season.
One way to account for variations is to compare traffic stops to the makeup of a broader region. When Cherry Hill audits officers each month, it compares demographics of stopped drivers to overall demographics of Camden County.
Brian H. Craig, who began requiring his officers to log the race of stopped drivers soon after becoming Swarthmore police chief in 1998, similarly uses Delaware County’s population in his annual analysis of officers’ stops.
For Swarthmore, looking only at borough demographics would skew comparisons — only 4 percent of drivers stopped actually live in Swarthmore. In fact, Swarthmore Police are more likely to pull over a Philadelphian than a borough resident.
Swarthmore Police stop a disproportionate number of black drivers compared to the makeup of the town…
From 2000 to 2016, 17% of drivers stopped by Swarthmore Police were black, according to police data, while 5% of borough residents are black. Police did not record Hispanic drivers as separate group. Hispanic numbers can be included in any race.
…but when compared to the makeup of the broader county, the numbers line up.
Only 4% of drivers stopped in Swarthmore are from the borough. So police chief Brian Craig compares the demographics of drivers stopped to those of the county: 20% of county residents are black.
Another test compares drivers pulled over during the day versus at night. If an officer is biased, the demographics of stopped drivers may shift once night falls and the officer can no longer easily distinguish drivers’ faces.
The “veil of darkness” test found evidence of disparities in Minneapolis and several police departments in Connecticut. Departments in San Diego, Oakland, Syracuse, N.Y., Cincinnati, and Greensboro, N.C., have also used the test.
“We think it’s a simple method that helps solve a lot of problems,” said Jeffrey Grogger, the urban policy professor at the University of Chicago who created the test in 2006.
At night, when you can’t see faces, it’s harder to determine race
One way to test for bias is to compare the demographics of drivers stopped during the end of daylight and the start of night. As night falls, drivers’ faces are obscured, as seen in these photos taken hours apart from a police car in Cherry Hill, N.J.
Ultimately, individual departments are left to figure out the best methods to evaluate the numbers. But without legal mandates, the patchwork of policies and regulations is likely to continue.
Menendez, along with Sen. Cory Booker (D., N.J.), introduced his bill in March that would mandate police nationwide to track demographics of stopped drivers.
A spokesman for Sen. Pat Toomey (R., Pa.) said that the senator believes there are “no one-size-fits all solutions,” but that officers who violate people’s rights should be held accountable. Sen. Bob Casey (D., Pa.) said police should track the race of stopped drivers.
Leadership in the White House and Justice Department also affects approaches to policing. Former President Bill Clinton’s administration was the first to use consent decrees, the court-enforced agreements between the DOJ and police departments it investigates, to bring changes in policing. And the Obama administration greatly increased them. The Bush administration preferred more voluntary agreements.
Under President Trump, Attorney General Jeff Sessions has ordered a review of all existing consent decrees, which he said reduce officer morale. He also has said he would “pull back” on federal oversight into local police departments.
The Justice Department declined to comment or answer questions for this story, including what authority it has to require departments to track race of stopped drivers, whether it would or has considered doing so, and whether it supports police departments undertaking the practice.
Some states, including California and Rhode Island in 2015, have taken it upon themselves to change policy. California made tracking the race of stopped drivers a law after overcoming resistance from law enforcement agencies and concerns about the cost of updating technology and traffic forms.
“We have a real responsibility to ensure that our officers are treating our citizens fairly,” said Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, a Democrat from San Diego who sponsored the bill.
Most states do not require police to log race of stopped drivers
Ten states have requirements that law enforcement agencies track the race of every driver they pull over.
Some changes can be made without passing new laws.
In New Jersey, the Attorney General can issue a statewide directive requiring police departments to track race but has not done so. County prosecutors can also mandate it: Burlington and Camden have; Gloucester plans to before the end of the year.
When Camden County’s requirement started four years ago, former prosecutor Warren Faulk said, there was little resistance from most police chiefs.
“This is for the protection of your department, too,” Faulk recalled telling them. “If you record the race of every person that is stopped, you can defend yourself against that sort of a claim. But if you don’t, you don't have any definitive evidence.”
In Pennsylvania, the state Attorney General can’t require the practice. Nor can county district attorneys, though they can recommend it to police departments.
“That recommendation would carry a lot of weight and would likely be followed, especially if it were made with prior input from the chiefs of police,” said Bucks County District Attorney Matthew Weintraub, who said he would favor the policy if it can reduce racial profiling or show officers are doing their jobs properly.
The traffic citation form that more than 200 departments use in Pennsylvania could also be updated by the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts to include a box for race.
“If it was a block on the form, we’d fill it out,” said Mark Goldberg, chief of police in Warwick Township, Bucks County. Several other chiefs echoed that.
The AOPC said it would consider the idea if agencies requested it.
Likewise, New Jersey could update its traffic-citation form but has no plans to add race “at this time,” a courts spokeswoman said.
Casey, the senator for Pennsylvania, said tracking race just makes sense.
“We know from recent American history that there are some communities where there’s a lot of work to do in terms of improving relations, holding law enforcement accountable,” Casey said. “Anything that will push us in the right direction to have that kind of improved trust is in everyone's best interest.”