Law Enforcement Agencies Vary On Tracking Race In Traffic Stops

By Jude Joffe-Block
January 08, 2014

PHOENIX – The San Diego Police Department was once a leader in tracking the race and ethnicity of which drivers officers pulled over but has since fallen behind, according to KPBS and Voice of San Diego.

More than a decade ago, San Diego police were among the first to use data to examine how frequently officers targeted minorities in traffic stops. Today, that policy has become the norm in big urban departments across the country. But in San Diego, the effort largely has fallen by the wayside. 

KPBS and Voice of San Diego determined that seven out of the ten largest police departments in the country require officers to document the race or complexion of the people they stop.

The San Diego Police Department recently pledged to resume collecting such data.

The Phoenix Police Department is one of the top ten departments that does not have a policy to track the race of the people they stop.

The Maricopa County Sheriff's Office, however, is in the process of developing a new system to record such data for the first time due to a court order.

It's one of several changes at MCSO after a federal judge found last year the agency, under Sheriff Joe Arpaio's leadership, singled out Latino drivers in its efforts to crack down on illegal immigration. 

MCSO piloted a new tracking system during a crime suppression operation last October. Captain Pat Lopez described it at a community meeting in November.

"There's two questions each deputy has to answer when they make a traffic stop," Lopez said. "It is the perception of the driver before they make the stop of what their ethnic background might be."

The second question was the deputy's perception of the driver's ethnicity after making the stop. 

"We are not allowed to ask them what their ethnic background is, per court order," Lopez said.

Ultimately, deputies will record these perceptions after every traffic stop. It will be part of a new electronic data tracking system.

The court order requires regular analysis of the data to ensure there aren't signs of racial profiling. 

Originally MCSO objected to the idea of recording deputies' perception of the race of drivers. In a brief to the judge, attorneys representing the agency and Arpaio argued such a mandate "places race in the forefront of a deputy’s mental analysis during his law enforcement activities."

Arpaio is appealing the judge's ruling.