Policing Project Study Confirms Racial Disparity in Traffic Stops

Barry Friedman, Director of the Policing Project. Photo courtesy of Policing Project and Jackie Sims, Community Oversight Now member and community activist. Photo courtesy of Jackie Sims

By Cillea Houghton 

NASHVILLE, TN — The release of a case study conducted by the Policing Project and Stanford Computational Policy Lab provides evidence that there are racial disparities among traffic stops in Nashville, the main policing tactic used by the Metro Nashville Police Department. The overall stop rate in Nashville was nearly double that of cities such as Raleigh and Charlotte, N.C. and is five times higher than Austin and Seattle. The study shows that while traffic stops have decreased since 2012, African-American drivers were stopped at a 44 percent higher rate than white drivers in 2017, while non-moving violations such as expired vehicle tags or a broken headlight found African-Americans at a stop rate of 68 percent higher. 

The report states that officers deploy to high-crime neighborhoods, which are often populated by minority groups. Many community leaders were consulted for the report including State Rep. Harold Love, MNPD Chief Steve Anderson, Sekou Franklin of Community Oversight Now and Sheila Clemmons Lee and Mark T. Lee, mother and stepfather, respectfully, of shooting victim Jocques Clemmons. 

“There’s a theory that even police presence in a neighborhood might drive down crime, but particularly what the Stanford report shows with a lot of statistical rigor is that’s just not the case. These stops just don’t fight crime,” Deputy Director of the Policing Project Farhang Heydari said. 

To help combat this issue, Barry Friedman, director of the Policing Project and professor at New York University School of Law, recommends the Neighborhood Policing Plan as a potential solution. The initiative was implemented by the New York Police Department and enables officers to devote more time to building personal relationships with the residents they serve as a way to establish trust. Friedman believes this system could decrease the rate of traffic stops without increasing crime in Nashville. “I think the combination of bringing down the stops and moving to this model has substantially changed the image of the NYPD. There’s still lack of trust and suspicion in some corridors, but I think by and large things have quieted down substantially and the NYPD is seen as a good partner. It’s remarkable,” he said. 

 “Another very tangible impact is if you’re doing more neighborhood policing, you’re hopefully conducting fewer stops. We’ve heard from people all around Nashville, there are very real, social, psychological dignitary costs to the stops,” adds Heydari. 

The Policing Project comes in direct response to the Gideon’s Army report published in 2016 regarding racial profiling in traffic stops by the MNPD, and the shootings of two African-American men, Clemmons and Daniel Hambrick, by white officers. The shooting of Hambrick occurred after a traffic stop in 2018.  

“We reaffirm what the Gideon’s Army report said in the sense that there’s terrific racial disparity in policing here in the city and it is essential for the sake of healthy relationships in this city broadly and between the communities that it polices, to address those,” Friedman said, recommending MNPD cease using traffic stops as a method of policing. “I think that’s an important step toward healthier relations around race and policing in this city. It’s also the case that the fewer of these interactions you have, the less of a risk there is that they will go wrong, and so that too ought to be a step toward addressing some of the issues we saw, for example in the two shootings.”

Friedman also notes that it will take collaboration from all city agencies to work together on racial disparity. The Community Oversight Board is one of those organizations and was approved by voters in the midterm election. Jackie Sims of Community Oversight Now says the Policing Project report did not present new information to the people of the neighborhoods where the traffic stops are predominantly occurring, but says having concrete evidence to support them is valuable. 

“They need to be a little more innovative in how they police communities, especially communities of color. If data has shown that it does not do anything to significantly reduce crime, then let’s stop this excessive contact in our communities that leads to a lot of things that become a cost burden to people who already don’t have a lot,” Sims said of how the city and MNPD can address racial disparity. “If we want to begin to do things different, we have to begin to be truthful about what historically has not taken place between law enforcement and communities of color.”

She does see the benefit of the Neighborhood Policing model, noting that if both sides are committed, it could reap positive change. “It can’t hurt,” she said of officers making personal connections with residents. “Any time you’re being intentional about wanting to build better relationships, that will be the by product. But you have to be intentional, there has to be the will to make that happen.”

Sims cites the constituents as a key factor in improving the relationship between police and the community. The COB will be hosting community meetings on a consistent basis and Sims calls on people from all sectors to participate in the discussion. “Regular every day citizens that are often the recipients of a lot of these excessive stops and over-policing in their community, I want them listened to. Their voices are as important as those who sit on boards and committees,” she said. “I want regular, every day people a part of this conversation if we’re serious about making changes and developing new relationships between communities of color and law enforcement officers.”

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