MSU study finds racial disparities in state police traffic stops

George Hunter
The Detroit News

The Michigan State Police director said he will outfit 1,600 troopers with body-worn cameras as part of a five-point plan to address racial disparities in traffic stops identified in a year-long study released Wednesday.

The study, "Michigan State Police Traffic Stop External Benchmarking," was conducted by Michigan State University and commissioned by state police Col. Joseph Gasper in September 2020 after internal MSP data showed a potential disparity in the ethnicity of citizens who were stopped for traffic violations.

Michigan State Police Col. Joseph Gasper, flanked by command staff, discusses a study about racial disparities during traffic stops on Wednesday, Jan. 12, 2022 during a virtual press conference.

The study, which was released three months after being completed in October 2021, showed "racial and ethnic disparities in the frequency and outcomes of traffic stops by MSP troopers," Gasper said during a virtual press conference.

Researchers scrutinized traffic stops in 2020 and found that when compared to population data, African Americans were more likely to be stopped by state troopers, while Hispanic and Asian drivers were less likely to be pulled over.

Blacks make up 13.6% of Michigan's population, but constituted 22.1% of traffic stops in 2020, the report found. Hispanics, 5.1% of the state population, represented 2.3% of stops, while Asians, 3.1% of the population, were stopped 0.7% of the time.

The study also looked at traffic stops at night using the "available darkness method, which assumes it's more difficult for a police officer to determine the race of a driver when it's dark," said Michigan State University criminal justice Professor Scott Wolfe, who authored the study.

"Stops conducted during daylight were significantly more likely to involve African-American drivers than those that occurred during darkness," a summary of the study said. "However, after accounting for potential seasonal variation in the nature of traffic stops or the makeup of drivers on the road, daylight no longer predicted whether a driver involved in a traffic stop was African American."

Although Gasper said it's not clear what's causing the disparity, he said he's launching a plan to address it. The plan includes hiring an independent expert to review MSP policies; establishing a statewide "listening and engagement effort ... in communities of color;" making traffic stop data available to troopers via an internal dashboard; and creating a Professional Development Bureau for further implicit bias and other training.

Gasper said the fifth component will be to equip all troopers who may come in contact with the public with body-worn cameras. He said about 250 troopers currently have the cameras, and he said hopes to deploy another 1,600 by the end of the year. Gasper was asked during the press briefing about the cost of the cameras but did not reply.

The study also found that "African-American drivers were significantly more likely than White drivers to be searched or arrested after traffic stops. There was mixed evidence regarding whether they were less likely to receive a citation than White drivers," the summary said.

"Hispanic drivers were significantly more likely than White drivers to be searched or

arrested after traffic stops, (while) Asian drivers were significantly less likely to be searched or arrested compared to White drivers," the summary said. "However, they were significantly more likely to receive a citation than White drivers (and less likely to receive a warning)."

The Rev. Wendell Anthony, director of the Detroit Branch NAACP, wasn't involved in the press conference but monitored it online and praised Gasper for voluntarily commissioning the study — but he said troopers must also be held accountable.

"Having responsibility with no accountability is an exercise in futility," Anthony said. "There must be accountability for those officers who abuse our trust and violate their oath."

The study examined separately traffic stops made in the 11 cities that make up the Secure Cities Partnership, a program in which state police provide additional patrol support to local police, because those communities have larger percentages of non-White residents.

The cities involved in the program include Benton Harbor, Detroit, Flint, Hamtramck, Harper Woods, Highland Park, Inkster, Lansing, Muskegon Heights, Pontiac, and Saginaw, although a majority of SCP stops occurred in Flint (38.8% of stops) and Saginaw (23.1%).

Nearly 77% of all traffic stops that occurred in those cities by troopers involved a Black driver, compared to 22.1% statewide. The study’s authors said African-American drivers were significantly more likely to be stopped in eight of the 11 communities than would have been expected based on the racial makeup of the community. In three communities – Harper Woods, Highland Park and Pontiac – traffic stops were on par with the racial representation of those cities’ populations, but the authors noted there were relatively few traffic stops related to the program in those cities.

Wolfe pointed out during the press conference, "It's imperative to understand the difference between disparity and discrimination. Disparity is an observed difference; discrimination involves a police officer intentionally targeting someone based on their skin color. Observed disparity cannot observe intent."

Gasper said he will next try to determine why the racial disparities exist.

"We have additional steps we intend to take to better understand the cause of the disparity," he said. "Although we don’t know the cause of the disparity, we’re still taking action, making sure we’re engaged and having conversations with people of color."

Omar Cuevas of the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce, who is part of MSP’s Bridges to BLUE Citizen Advisory Council, said the study's findings are "sobering, yet they should serve as a baseline as we evaluate the effectiveness of the MSP five-point plan, and work toward our common goal."

Following Wednesday's press conference, Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel said in a statement: "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."

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Twitter: @GeorgeHunter_DN