Racial Profiling at Traffic Stops and Solutions

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Updated: Mar 25, 2021
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Racial Profiling at Traffic Stops and Solutions essay

Traffic stops are incidents that happen to every driver at some point in their life. Whether it is because there is a broken tail light on the car, a traffic violation occurred, or any other factor that can contribute to police conducting a traffic stop. A traffic stop is defined as a justifiable act done by police officers due to a reasonable suspicion that the driver is involved in criminal activities (Sklansky, 2000). In Whren v. United States (1996), the Supreme Court established that in order for a traffic stop to occur, there has to be probable cause. The Court, however, abstained from setting an overall standard of what warrants as ‘probable cause’; meaning that a traffic stop can occur solely based on a police officer’s subjectiveness to not only the action that took place before the stop but rather could also be from the individuals themselves (Glantz, 1997, p. 864; Kamalu, N. C., 2016, p. 193).

The Supreme Court’s decision to espouse an objective standard for conducting traffic stops is problematic. It allows groundless search and seizures to happen; thus, violating an individual’s Fourth Amendment right. “The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution prohibits the violation of ‘[t]he right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures…’” (U.S. Const. amend. IV; Glantz, 1997, p. 865). One definite violation of an individual’s Fourth Amendment right would be racial profiling at traffic stops. Racial profiling during a traffic stop has been a controversial issue for some time now. Racial profiling is defined as “any situation in which race is used by a police officer or agency to determine the potential criminality of an individual” (Kamalu, N. C., 2016, p. 189). Do minorities get stopped more frequently than Caucasians? Is it because of their race, or because they violate more traffic laws? Every characteristic about each situation needs to be taken into account, “such as cultural factors, environment, physical surrounding, time of day, and danger” (Kamalu, N. C., 2016, p. 204).

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Probable Cause

Observational Patrol Officers are more likely to conduct a search through indications they receive through their smell, sight, and hearing. However, these indications are common sense. So, a repetitive form of action that indicates law violations may be a trigger to suspect suspicious behavior with random drivers (Vito, G. F., & Walsh, W. F., 2008, p. 90). Probable cause is subjective to each police officer. They get a sense of backing from on the job experiences and past experiences. Police officers, patrol officers, and any other law enforcement individuals have to be somewhat of a mediator during tough situations. Their subjectiveness is not only recommended but needed. However, the race of the individual that there is a confrontation with should not be one of the factors to consider when deciding what actions to take. Vito et al.’s describe a traffic stop as an “interpretive act” (Vito, G. F., & Walsh, W. F., 2008, p. 91). Police officers evaluate the situation after stopping the vehicle; however, what factors they used before conducting that stop is not an interpretive act. There is absolutely no way to have “pre-existing knowledge” of every minority individual that police officers pull over (Vito, G. F., & Walsh, W. F., 2008).

Factors Contributing to Search and Seizures During Traffic Stops

Physical Characteristics

Race plays a substantial amount of importance when deciding whether a traffic stop that was conducted is considered racial profiling or not. If when a police officer took into account that because a person is of a certain race, he/she should be stopped and searched (Higgins, G. E., Jennings, W. G., Jordan, K. L., & Gabbidon, S. L., 2011, Abstract). There is consistent research that suggests that Black and Hispanic motorists were more likely to be subjected to have search and seizures during traffic stops compared to Caucasian motorists (Engel, R. S., & Johnson, R., 2006; Higgins, G., Gabbidon, S., & Vito, G., 2010). There is also evidence that Black drivers are subject to more arrests than White drivers, especially by White police officers (Rojek, J., Rosenfeld, R., & Decker, S., 2012). Research has found that even in a controlled study in regard to racial differences in arrest rates, Blacks (23%) and Hispanics (39%) were stopped more than Caucasians (Parker, K. F., MacDonald, J. M., Alpert, G. P., Smith, M. R., & Piquero, A. R., p. 944). Since the War on Drugs was declared in the early 1970s, the consequences have been brutal on young minority males. They are put under police surveillance and imprisonment at a much larger rate than their Caucasian counterparts. “Drug arrest rates were five times higher for blacks than whites” (Vito, G. F., & Walsh, W. F., 2008, p. 52). Even though according to the annual National Household Survey on Drug Abuse showed that both racial groups had a similar rate of drug usage.

Black Citizens. There is historical documentation in regard to the unfair treatment of racial minorities by police departments – specifically Black Americans. “The civil disturbances that erupted in cities across the United States in the 1960s were attributed in part to discriminatory practices of the police”. (Rojek, 2012, para. 4). In Kamalu’s (2016) article comparing racial profiling across the states, Kamalu studied David Harris’s 100 videotaped traffic stops that ranged from January 1995 to June 1996 and took place at the State of Maryland. Harris found that out of the 732 motorists that were searched by the Maryland State Police, 75% of the searches conducted belong to Black Citizens. “Researchers found that [Black individuals] aged 15 years or older, who comprised only 20.2% of the San Diego’s population, recorded 34.9% of equipment violation stops and 50.1% of the searches subsequent to vehicular stops” (Kamalu, N. C., 2016, p. 195).

Hispanic Citizens. While the most commonly thought of racial profiling is towards Black individuals, Hispanic people are also one of the most affected due to racial profiling. In a study conducted by Engel et al.’s (2006), it was found that while Black motorist were 1.7 to 5.4 times more likely to be stopped and searched by state patrol agencies compared to Caucasian motorists, Hispanic motorists were actually 1.8 to 9.6 times more likely to be stopped and searched compared to Caucasian motorists. One possible explanation for such a high percentage between the Hispanics and Blacks is because of the involvement in drug trafficking and other things of that nature. Due to racial profiling and stereotyping, searches for contraband in New Jersey were relatively high for both Blacks and Hispanics. However, in states like Arizona, Iowa, Missouri, Ohio, and Washington, searches from Hispanic drivers were “less fruitful” compared to searches from Caucasians (Engel, R. S., & Johnson, R., 2006, p. 608; Glover, K. S., Penalosa, M., & Schlarmann, A., 2010; Engel, R. S., & Calnon, J. M., 2004). In a study reviewed in Glover et al.’s article, it shows that even though minority groups are less likely to be found with illegal substances, the type of drug and the quantity of the drugs that are found with Caucasians is considered more serious.

Ecological Characteristics

As a whole, the United States (U.S.) has its own culture and values. However, in every state, every city, there are individual, unique subcultures of their own. A subculture is defined as a culture that is distinct from the larger culture but often exaggerates its own symbols, beliefs, and values. (Coleman, J. S., 1998). This means that in one place an act can be seen as respectful but, in another area, that same act can be seen as a form of disrespect. “By including the ecological characteristics of an area […] researchers will be able to provide [information about the] complex interactions between neighborhood characteristics, community members, and police behavior” (Parker, K. F., MacDonald, J. M., Alpert, G. P., Smith, M. R., & Piquero, A. R., p. 944). Data from the Police Services Study found that suspects from lower-income neighborhoods had a higher risk of being arrested.

Traffic Stop Escalation

Use of Force

Many citizens of the United States (U.S.) do not know every right they are entitled to based off of the Constitution. Civil rights groups, like the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People actively inform people of their rights as citizens of the United States. To let individuals know, especially young black males, that they can legally battle the abuse they have received from aggressive police stops.

Effects of Racial Profiling on Society


The issue of racial profiling and racism in the law enforcement community effects how citizens interact with police officers as a whole. The ongoing issue with racial profiling tears apart the trust that citizens are supposed to have with law enforcement. It makes minority group not want to call 9-1-1 to get assistance in life-altering situations (Glover, K. S., Penalosa, M., & Schlarmann, A., 2010, p. 606). The 1991 Rodney King beating is what began the movement of understanding the police – minority experiences. King’s beating made the term ‘traffic stop’. “formally contested in the legal realm”. Before, talk of racial profiling was viewed as “anecdotal accounts from overly sensitive, angry, and disgruntled minorities” (Glover, K. S., Penalosa, M., & Schlarmann, A., 2010). In the 1980’s Operation Pipeline, a drug interdiction program established by the United States was uncovered that proved that Black motorists were targeted.

Citizens Perceptions

Minorities biases due to past prejudices influenced their beliefs that they are more targeted more frequently by the police. They view profiling as widespread and unjustified. In Higgins et al.’s study three measures were introduced: “whether citizens perceptions of racial profiling were influenced by their belief that the practice was discriminatory”, “whether support for racial profiling was influenced by ones ethical beliefs” and “whether those respondents who perceived racial profiling as effective were more likely to support it than those who viewed profiling as ineffective” (Higgins, G., & Gabbidon, S., 2012, p. 74-75). Conservative are less likely to believe that racial profiling is widespread. Higgins et al.’s also found that “citizens believed that police actions were illegitimate when it comes to racial profiling”; meaning that citizens believe that racial profiling of any sort is unethical (Higgins, G., & Gabbidon, S., 2012, p. 75). It’s an act that is seen every day, in retail stores, restaurants, etc. Racial profiling is an appalling act that is all too common. Its as though people are desensitized. It isn’t shocking when witnessed first-hand, but it is still something that minorities are fighting to change. In Kamalu’s study, he/she found that “blacks are more likely than white to hold unfavorable opinions of the criminal justice agencies” (Kamalu, N. C., 2016, p. 196).


In order to solve this racial profiling during traffic stops issue, we first need to have concrete evidence that race does affect who police officers stop and search. In 2000, a bill was proposed that “would encourage police departments to keep detailed records of the race and ethnicity of motorists stopped by police” (Browne, J. Z., 2000). The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) played a key role in making this act be uncontroversial; as at the time of the bill being signed by the House and the Senate and waiting the president’s signature, “dozens of police agencies across the nation agreed to collect traffic data” (Browne, J. Z., 2000). As of 2001, this is a legitimate Act of Congress. In 1996, the Maryland State Police prohibited “the use of race-based drug courier profiles in stopping, detaining, or searching motorists, train all trooper on the content of the policy, maintain records on the race of all drivers stopped and searched, and discipline troopers who violate the policy” (Glover, K. S., Penalosa, M., & Schlarmann, A., 2010). Before this act was implemented, there was not any statistical data to help support the claims against the unfair treatment police officers would inflict on the public. Even if data is being collected from police departments all around the United States, there is no method of analyzing the data that is being collected. Even though such an effort has made a small contribution to help understand race distribution of traffic stops, it has helped “determine the extent to which race – bias affects citation rates, search rates, and the duration of traffic stops” (Kamalu, N. C., 2016, p. 195). In Houston, Texas a mandatory racial profiling study occurred which had traffic citations plummet during the study time compared to previous years (Glover, K. S., Penalosa, M., & Schlarmann, A., 2010). Awareness is what should be brought to the police officer’s attention. That the stereotypes that are out there aren’t true and you shouldn’t judge people because of them. It could have some serious backlash and/or consequences.


Racial profiling is a prevalent issue going on all across the nation. Across several different studies, there is a surplus of research and evidence to help support the implication that racial profiling is not a small issue that hardly ever occurs. The sources selected showed the race relations between stops and search and seizures and the different factors that contribute to it. Studies were selected that demonstrated. Whether the race of the police officer of the driver had any effect. Whether cultural differences based off of where the individuals that were stopped resides. The studies that were selected regarded whether police departments and the government acknowledged this issue and whether they have made actions to resolve it. When conducting a traffic stop there should always be factual evidence that can be proven in court. There is no way to have “pre-existing knowledge” about each minority individual that drives by (Vito, G. F., & Walsh, W. F., 2008).


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Racial Profiling at Traffic Stops and Solutions. (2021, Mar 25). Retrieved from https://papersowl.com/examples/racial-profiling-at-traffic-stops-and-solutions/