Red-light cameras: What insights can they offer about racial profiling?

 
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There is a significant amount of research showing that people of color are more often involved in traffic stops than white drivers. But it is not yet known how much of this may be due to racial discrimination and how much of a role is played by other factors, including differences in driving habits and in the number of police patrols assigned to certain communities.  In some cases, studies provide conflicting results.

As researchers try to better understand the problem, public leaders have denounced racial profiling and adopted policies aimed at preventing it. For example, in August 2015, Maryland created guidelines designed to severely restrict law enforcement officers from identifying suspects based on race and some other traits. In October 2015, California’s governor signed legislation requiring local law enforcement agencies to collect demographic information on the people they stop. Surveys suggest that African Americans do not have a lot of confidence in police treating blacks and whites equally.

A 2015 study published in Police Quarterly sought to clear up some of the conflicting evidence related to racial profiling. For the study, “The Policy of Enforcement: Red Light Cameras and Racial Profiling,” the authors analyzed information collected by cameras that were installed at signalized intersections to detect drivers who run red lights. Robert J. Eger III of the Naval Postgraduate School, C. Kevin Fortner of Georgia State University and Catherine P. Slade of Georgia Regents University studied citations issued by red-light cameras at 18 intersections in one county over 12 months to better understand which drivers are most often cited. They also wanted to determine whether red-light cameras, as neutral observers, may help mitigate disparities in traffic enforcement.

Key findings include:

  • The researchers found racial disparities when they looked at the races of local drivers caught by cameras running red lights and compared that information against the demographics of all residents who lived in the county where the cameras were located and in seven neighboring counties. In the county where the red-light cameras were located, 14.7% of residents were black. Meanwhile, 30.2% of citations issued from that county went to black drivers.
  • In the eight-county area that was studied, 65.4% of the total population was white and 26.3% was black. Almost 62% of red-light violators were white.
  • When the researchers used U.S. Census data – including income, vehicles per household and education levels — to analyze information about residents as “block groups,” a different picture emerged. The analysis suggests that the racial composition of the block group does not significantly affect the number of violations found within the block group. Two other factors appeared to play larger roles with respect to violations within the block group: The number of vehicles per household and the distance the driver lived from the location of the violation.
  • Some evidence indicates that the poor are not disproportionately affected by red-light cameras.

This study suggests that in addition to using cameras to discourage dangerous driving habits, local officials could use them to help address complaints of racial profiling in specific neighborhoods or communities. The technology could be “a timely and cost-effective supplement to internal and external audits or legal inquiries,” according to the authors. This study provides some groundwork for future studies that seek to compare and contrast traffic violations detected by red-light cameras and violations cited by law-enforcement officers. “If the resulting action of law enforcement and that observed by the camera is similar, then this redefines the issue of racial profiling,” the authors state. “If our results are supported by future research, then the resulting outcomes can lead policy makers to potentially undiscovered policies that assist in educating and thereby mitigating the issues of racial profiling.”

Related research: A 2015 study in the Journal of Black Studies considers the perceptions of black police officers regarding the presence and impact of biased policing in small police agencies. A 2009 study published in Criminology looks at the racial makeup of neighborhoods and trends in perceived racial profiling. A 2012 study in the Journal of Public Administration Research examines the factors that prompt the enforcement of federal immigration laws in cities near U.S. borders.

Keywords: traffic, law enforcement, traffic stop, traffic enforcement, profiling thresholds, immigration law, African American, Hispanic, Latino, drivers, red-light running, red-light cameras, traffic signal, traffic violation, traffic citation, biased policing

Last updated: October 30, 2015

 

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Citation: Eger III, Robert J.; Fortner, C. Kevin; Slade, Catherine P. “The Policy of Enforcement: Red Light Cameras and Racial Profiling,” Police Quarterly, 2015. doi: 10.1177/1098611115586174.