Is racial profiling a Virginia problem?

Is racial profiling by Virginia police a problem? There is plenty of anecdotal evidence that suggests it is, though no one seems to have enough data to know for sure. But the Charlottesville-based Virginia Organizing Project (VOP) wants that data, and Virginia police and state lawmakers aren’t making it easy to come by.

60: percentage of Virginians of color believe racial profiling is a problem, according to  a survey taken by the Department of Criminal Justice.

As a part of its Statewide Racial Profiling Campaign, VOP is working to get Virginia State Police and all local law enforcement agencies to collect data on all traffic stops. Currently, data is only available for stops resulting in an arrest or summons. VOP wants to know who is being pulled over when those two things don’t happen. More specifically, it wants to know if race or ethnicity is a factor in traffic stops, and whether minority drivers are subject to searches, tickets or arrests more frequently than whites.

"We want to know, for each traffic stop, who gets stopped in terms of race and ethnicity," says Larry Yates, who is spearheading VOP’s campaign. "That’s the race and ethnicity as perceived by the officer, so they don’t have to ask anybody. And we’d like to know what the outcome is. Was there a summons or search? Was there an arrest?"

According to a study done by the U.S. Department of Justice, black drivers nationwide were more than three times more likely to be searched than white drivers, and Hispanics were three-and-a-half times more likely to have their vehicles searched. Both blacks and Hispanics were about three times more likely to be handcuffed. Searches and detentions don’t necessarily show up in traffic stop data if no tickets are issued or arrests made.
"Generally speaking, most law enforcement officials are pretty good about things," says Joe Szakos, the executive director of VOP. "But not all of them. And this would help to identify where the problem is, and it would drive toward a solution of what we could do about this."

Yates says that there’s been significant resistance to collecting such data, though there are 20 other states, including North Carolina and Maryland, where state police or all law enforcement collect traffic-stop data.

After North Carolina collected its data, says Yates, it found disparate results. After law enforcement officials underwent more Fourth Amendment training, they saw what Yates calls "a lot of improvement over time."

Despite the number of states that currently collect data, Yates says Virginia law enforcement, on a state level, isn’t exactly willing to start collecting data itself. VOP has been calling for data from all local agencies for almost five years. While getting Virginia State Police to begin collecting traffic-stop data would be easier, Yates says getting all local agencies to collect data would most likely require state legislation.

"There’s resistance, or at least there’s an unwillingness to do it," says Yates. "The General Assembly has taken its direction from law enforcement. Legislation has been introduced a number of times. It never got out of committee. And, basically, it didn’t get out of committee because of the objections of law enforcement."

Those objections, says Yates, are over the expenses and logistics of such data collection.
"There are plenty of other states that are doing this," he says. "They don’t go broke, they don’t stop enforcing the law, so those seemed like weak objections. I think to some extent none of us like to have somebody looking over our shoulders. And they don’t feel the evidence is there that this is a major problem. We believe it is. Sixty percent of Virginians of color believed it was in a survey taken by the Department of Criminal Justice. We run into very few people who deny it exists."

Another of VOP’s goals is to pass legislation for a new Department of Criminal Justice position that would train police across the state in anti-biased policing. Szakos says he’s had good experiences working with Charlottesville Police Chief Tim Longo.

"We’ve had conversations with Chief Longo," says Szakos. "He’s been incredibly cooperative in terms of us thinking through how we can get more resources for local police departments and sheriff departments to do that kind of training. He’s very supportive."

In an e-mail, Longo says that before he could support such a collection of traffic-stop data, he would want to better understand the scope of the data, how it would be collected, and under what circumstances.

"I would then want to ensure that the data would be collected from all jurisdictions within the Commonwealth using the same collection criteria," he says.

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