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In Boston, Black drivers are pulled over 2.5 times more often than white drivers, a new study says

"Through its analysis of MassDOT data, Vera found substantial evidence that police disproportionately levy traffic stops against Black drivers in Suffolk County."

Carlin Stiehl for The Boston Globe

Black drivers in Suffolk County are stopped by police at a rate that’s over two times higher than their white counterparts, especially for non-traffic-safety reasons, a new study says.

In Boston, Black drivers were pulled over approximately 2.5 times more often than white drivers between 2010 and 2019, according to the study from the Vera Institute of Justice. For non-safety violations such as having an expired registration or tinted windows on a vehicle, Black people were 3.9 times more likely to be stopped than white people.

The report was the result of a partnership between the Vera Institute and the Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office to study racial disparities in the criminal justice system.

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“Through its analysis of MassDOT data, Vera found substantial evidence that police disproportionately levy traffic stops against Black drivers in Suffolk County,” the report states. “This is especially true for violations that pose no threat to public safety and that grant officers the greatest discretion in enforcement — non-traffic-safety stops.”

Non-traffic-safety stops are often used by police as reason to search vehicles and their passengers for evidence of more serious but unrelated crimes.

In the entirety of Suffolk County, Black drivers were pulled over for these violations at 2.3 times the rate of white drivers, the study found. But in some areas of the county, such as in Boston and Winthrop, police officers pulled over Black drivers for these reasons “at rates closer to 3.8 and 8.9 times the rate of white drivers, respectively,” the study says.

“Vera’s findings back up what local community members have long known, traffic stops are a major source of racial profiling, do not improve traffic safety, and harm Black and brown people daily,” Fatema Ahmad, executive director of the Muslim Justice League, said in a statement. “It is imperative that Suffolk County and Boston start taking steps to remove law enforcement from traffic safety.”

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According to the study, Black residents make up 21 percent of Suffolk County’s population but account for 30 percent of all traffic stops. The county includes four municipalities: Boston, Chelsea, Revere, and Winthrop.

Countywide, Black drivers were stopped 1.6 times more often than white drivers during the 2010s, and were the only racial/ethnic demographic to be overrepresented in traffic stops, the report says.

“At the municipal level, the Winthrop Police Department produces the greatest Black–white traffic stop disparity of the four municipalities in Suffolk County, with its officers stopping Black drivers at a rate more than eight times that of their white counterparts,” the study says. “Both Boston and Revere police departments stop Black drivers at a rate roughly 2.5 times the rate of white drivers in their jurisdictions.”

In Chelsea, both Black and white drivers were pulled over by police at disparate rates, since white drivers make up 25 percent of the city’s population but 51 percent of traffic stops, and Black drivers account for 6 percent of the population but 12 percent of traffic stops, according to the study.

Meanwhile, non-traffic-safety stops made up approximately a third of all police stops in Suffolk County over the decade studied.

“Vera found that Black people are 2.3 times more likely to be stopped by police for non-traffic-safety reasons than white drivers,” the report states. “The significance of this finding cannot be overstated: where police have the most discretion whether to pull someone over — non-traffic-safety stops that pose no threat to people outside the vehicle — we see the greatest disparity.”

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Additionally, the study found that fifteen of the 150 unique non-traffic-safety violations were behind a large percentage of racial disparities in non-traffic-safety stops. These violations range from an obstructed window to inspection sticker issues and failure to wear a seatbelt.

“If police ended the practice of stopping drivers for these 15 non-traffic-safety violations alone, Black drivers would experience 41,186 fewer non-traffic-safety stops (out of 57,332 total non-traffic-safety stops),” the study says. “The impact of these violations on racial disparities is substantial: the Black–white non-traffic-safety stop disparity would be cut nearly in half — a 46 percent decrease — if police did not make stops for these 15 violations.”

The study also made several policy recommendations in response to its findings. These include suggestions that local city councils pass ordinances prohibiting police from initiating traffic stops for non-traffic-safety-related violations, and for arrests on warrants on low-level offenses such as failing to pay fines or missing court dates for misdemeanor charges.

Other recommendations include having police departments adopt policies against stopping drivers for such violations and having state lawmakers create legislation that builds “non-police first responder teams whose mission is traffic and road safety.”

The report also suggests having the district attorney develop policies “that create a presumption not to charge criminal cases that stem from non-traffic-safety stops or from consent searches when police lacked probable cause to conduct the search.”

“Banning non-traffic-safety stops supports public safety, reduces racial disparities, and decreases the chances of yet another driver, passenger, or police officer being injured or killed during a traffic stop,” Akhi Johnson, director of Reshaping Prosecution at Vera Institute of Justice, said in a statement. “Massachusetts can join other states in taking steps to improve safety by reducing harms caused by unnecessary and discriminatory traffic stops.”

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Sergeant Detective John Boyle, a spokesman for the Boston Police Department, told the Boston Globe the department is in the process of reviewing the report and its recommendations.

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