Driver Race, Ethnicity, and Gender and Citizen Reports of Vehicle Searches by Police and Vehicle Search Hits: Toward a Triangulated Scholarly Understanding

By Lundman, Richard J. | Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, Winter 2004 | Go to article overview

Driver Race, Ethnicity, and Gender and Citizen Reports of Vehicle Searches by Police and Vehicle Search Hits: Toward a Triangulated Scholarly Understanding


Lundman, Richard J., Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology


INTRODUCTION

The debate over race and ethnically targeted vehicle searches by police is currently dominated by two loosely organized and very different coalitions. The first consists of civil rights and social movement organizations, such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), professors of law, and investigative journalists. The members of this first coalition firmly oppose race and ethnically targeted vehicle searches by police, and their opposition is grounded in the argument that such searches are illegal and unproductive. (1) The ACLU's report, Driving While Black, is representative of the position of this first coalition:

   Racial profiling is based on the premise that most drug offenses are
   committed by minorities. The premise is factually untrue, but it has
   nonetheless become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Because police look
   for drugs primarily among African Americans and Latinos, they find a
   disproportionate number of them with contraband. Therefore, more
   minorities are arrested, prosecuted, convicted, and jailed, thus
   reinforcing the perception that drug trafficking is primarily a
   minority activity.... [W]hite drivers receive far less police
   attention, many of the drug dealers and possessors among them go
   unapprehended, and the perception that whites commit fewer drug
   offenses than minorities is perpetuated. (2)

The second coalition is composed of police administrators and officers and some of them openly support race and ethnically targeted vehicle searches by police. (3) Their support is firmly grounded in the argument that such searches are more likely to yield hits in the form of illegal evidence, especially drugs. Consider three illustrations: first, prior to being fired for trying to defend racial profiling, the Superintendent of the New Jersey State Police, Carl Williams, stated: "Today, with this drug problem, the drug problem is cocaine or marijuana. It is most likely a minority group that's involved with it." Second, Bernard Parks, Chief of the Los Angeles Police Department from 1997 to 2002, observed: "It's not the fault of police.... It's the fault of minority males for committing the crime. In my mind it is not a great revelation that if officers are looking for criminal activity, they're going to look at the kind of people who are listed on crime reports." Third, the words of an experienced Maryland State Police Officer working Route 50 between Washington, DC and the Eastern Shore:

   Ask me how many white people I've arrested for cocaine smuggling
   .... None! Zero! I debrief hundreds of black smugglers, and I ask
   them, "Why don't you hire white guys to deliver your drugs?" They
   just laugh at me. "We ain't gonna trust our drugs with white boys."
   That's what they say.... I dream at night about arresting white
   people for cocaine. I do. I try to think of innovative ways to
   arrest white males. But the reality is different. (4)

With several important ongoing and hence preliminary exceptions detailed below, social science scholars have not been a visible and central part of the debate over race and ethnically targeted vehicle searches by police. Only a handful of published scholarly papers currently exist and most of them have been written by professors of law, appeared in law review journals, and been directed nearly exclusively at the constitutionality of race and ethnically targeted vehicle stops and searches. (5) Scholars in social science disciplines that have traditionally undertaken research on police and policing, such as criminal justice, criminology, and sociology, have not as yet published formal scholarly papers on vehicle searches and vehicle search hits.

There are, however, several important ongoing and therefore preliminary exceptions to the general absence of social science examination of vehicle searches and vehicle search hits. …

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