Racial disparities in traffic enforcement continue to deepen, even as the overall rate of police traffic stops declines, according to a recent report from the Office of Legislative Oversight.
While the number of Montgomery County Police Department traffic stops declined between fiscal years 2018 and 2022, the number of stops where police listed the driver’s race or ethnicity as “other” doubled over the same period—going from 7% to 14%—according to OLO data. The white and Asian categories decreased, while the Black and Hispanic categories increased.
At the request of the County Council, OLO performed an analysis of traffic stops by driver’s race or ethnicity using publicly available county data for the latest report. The results were published in October 2022, and the council’s Public Safety and Transportation & Environment committees met Monday evening to discuss the findings.
Officers offered additional context to the report, and several questioned the validity of its conclusions.
“This is a very good department. If you look at these situations happening all over the country, what’s very difficult for us to hear is we get captured in the broad brush of actions of others,” Capt. Brian Dillman said. “As an agency, you don’t see these things happening that are happening in Memphis, happening in Minnesota, here in this department.”
Black community activists disagreed. Danielle Blocker attended the Monday meeting as executive director of Young People for Progress, a local grassroots organization for social justice committed to advocating for residents under 35. Blocker’s team has advocated extensively on issues related to traffic safety and police profiling.
“That’s not true,” she said.
She cited the 2018 death of Robert White, who was fatally shot by an MCPD officer while walking unarmed through his neighborhood in the middle of the day. An internal department review of the incident concluded the officer’s use of force was legal.
“Many of us can think of examples of folks from the county who were harmed and even killed by police,” Blocker said.
She added that she personally knows many Black residents who are scared to report negative police interactions for fear of retaliation or because they believe nothing will be done.
“Think about it,” she said. “Why would I file a complaint against the police, with the police?”
Dillman was joined by MCPD Cmdr. Dave McBain, Assistant Chief Marc Yamada, Director of Automated Enforcement Christopher Tippery and Lt. John O’Brien. Following a 20-minute presentation from an OLO legislative analyst, committee members spent over an hour and a half questioning the panel about the report. There was no opportunity for public comment.
Police data shows 67.5% of traffic stops in 2021 were for speeding, Dillman pointed out. The vast majority of the time, he said, a speeding ticket results from the use of handheld speed detectors. “There’s absolutely no way when you’re hitting with a laser from 500,000 feet away that you know what the race of the driver is at that point in time,” he said.
Some of the largest racial disparities in traffic stops are for citations like expired tags and broken taillights, neither of which require a speedometer, Blocker pointed out.
Yamada questioned whether the data took into account the number of stops taking place after dusk when “it would be impossible to tell the race of the driver.”
Time of day was not a factor considered in OLO’s report, according to legislative analyst Natalia Carrizosa. However, in response to Yamada, she cited a recent analysis from California that found racial disparities manifest during daylight hours.
The Stanford Open Policing Project analyzed data from almost 100 million traffic stops across the country between 2011-16, finding Black drivers 20% more likely to be stopped by police than white drivers. The report found police were less likely to pull over Black drivers after dark when the drivers’ faces were obscured.
The October 2022 report is only the latest in a series of OLO findings depicting or related to racial disparities in law enforcement.
Last year, OLO found MCPD officers failed to collect required traffic stop data for 14 years. A 2007 negotiation between the county and police union allowed officers to give drivers their business card instead of issuing a written citation, potentially skewing the reported data, OLO found. State law requires all traffic stops be documented, regardless of whether a citation is issued or not.
In 2020, OLO released a report identifying racial disparities in police interactions with residents of color. Around 18% of the county’s population are Black, but Black residents make up 55% of use of force cases and 32% of traffic stops, the report found. In 2017, Black people accounted for 44% of all MCPD arrests.
Dillman suggested that to really make progress in addressing racial disparities, the county should look at the issue through the lens of crime rates rather than “this tunnel vision with this OLO report.”
“There are disparities across the board with crime as well,” he said. “If we’re going to have an honest conversation about things, it’s much bigger than what we’re talking about here.”
Blocker said YPP works with other grassroots organizations like the Silver Spring Justice Coalition to push for road infrastructure-related solutions—lower speed limits, narrower roads, bike lanes and crosswalks—to be implemented in order to improve traffic safety.
“If we really want to help people of color, we should be looking at solutions that don’t criminalize them, that don’t put them further in debt, that don’t cause them fear and anxiety and sometimes physical harm,” she said.