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OpinionEditorial

Eliminating bias in policing on Long Island

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone releases the results

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone releases the results and findings of a study to detect if bias was a factor in routine traffic stops by the Suffolk County Police Department on Oct. 20, 2020 in Hauppauge. Credit: Howard Schnapp

From the fall of 2018 through the spring of 2020, Black drivers in Suffolk County were four times more likely than white motorists to be pulled over in traffic stops. Once pulled over, Black drivers were, compared to white drivers, about:

  • Three times as likely to be subjected to physical force
  • Twice as likely to be subjected to a vehicle search
  • Twice as likely to be subjected to a search of their person
  • 84% more likely to be restrained
  • 59% more likely to be arrested

Yet, the Black drivers were also 29% more likely than whites to have searches of vehicles yield no contraband.

These numbers paint an alarming picture of policing in Suffolk County, combining powerfully to overcome the excuses of those who deny there is bias, whether overt or implicit, in law enforcement. When disparate numbers on stops and arrests arise, the most common refrain of critics is that perhaps minorities commit more crimes and the stops and searches are justified.

But in Suffolk, whites are less likely to be stopped and searched, more likely to have contraband when they are searched, and yet still less likely to be arrested.

In Suffolk, the statistics also showed Hispanics are more likely than whites to be stopped, subjected to a search, arrested and ticketed, and less likely to receive a warning, raising similar alarms.

The data were released as part of Suffolk’s six-year-old agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice, in which the county committed to collect and analyze the information annually. And the findings show it is important for Nassau County to release its data, which it refused to do for a recent Newsday story on the subject. It now says it will release the data. Village police departments, meanwhile, should collect and release the data as well.

The best way to assure the data is always captured statewide is adding racial information to what’s collected via the state’s traffic-summons system, which now asks only for the driver’s name, vehicle information, the type of infraction and incident location. Demanding racial and ethnic information would create a constantly updating trove of information that could make the state and its communities safer and expose bias in policing where it exists. The change should be made immediately.

There are many variables in how policing resources are deployed that complicate analysis. Police focus on high-crime areas, which may have outsized minority populations.

But the disparities here are so large they strongly point to bias. They suggest that often race or ethnicity is a component in an officer’s decision to justify that a "reasonable suspicion" or "probable cause" standard was met for stops and searches. And the low percentage of Black and Hispanic motorists stopped and searched who are found with drugs or weapons demands that new policies be put in place. That would require better training, and a firm, open dedication to addressing the problem.

— The editorial board

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