LANSING – An external investigation into the Michigan State Police agency has found that some of its policies and programs are creating racial disparities in traffic stops.
The study, conducted by non-profit research firm CNA, found that these practices lead to more police officers pulling over Black and Hispanic drivers. This does not appear to be caused by discriminatory traffic enforcement, but rather informal quota systems that allow troopers to decide where to patrol.
While the MSP does not have an expectation for troopers to write a minimum number of tickets each day, the report states that they are expected to remain “productive” during their shift.
The report found that troopers tend to patrol urban areas — where more minorities lived — to get enough stops to fill daily activity log sheets. Troopers told the report’s authors they need to make an entry on activity logs every 20 to 30 minutes and not doing so “could affect their employee evaluations.
“As the urban areas are more likely to contain non-White residents, this may inadvertently lead to disparate stops,” according to the report from the Virginia-based CNA consulting firm.
“Troopers working posts with large, rural areas and interspersed urban areas may ignore the rural areas if there is not enough activity and congregate in urban areas to fill their (daily activity log sheets),” the report added.
The report was ordered by state officials after an American Civil Liberties Union analysis found Black motorists, who comprise 14 percent of the state population, comprised 17 percent to 20 percent of state police stops from 2017 to 2020.
One attribute to the slight bias in the MSP agency is the diversity of the force itself. The department has 1,600 troopers at 30 posts statewide, but it has struggled to diversify its ranks: About 5 percent of its force is Black, and 56 of its 61 graduates from its academy in November are white.
The report found that the Michigan State Police trooper schools in the past five years “overwhelmingly consisted of white recruits,” about 85 percent.
The department stated that it has set recruitment goals of 25 percent minority candidates and 20 percent women. How long it will take for that goal to be reached still remains unclear.
Interviews with troopers revealed they could initiate a search after smelling alcohol or marijuana or after a motorist gave inconsistent answers — which the report described as accepted behaviors of potential criminal activity.
But the interviews also showed some troopers would consider fidgeting, lighting a cigarette, avoiding eye contact or just having both hands on the steering wheel as potential signs of suspicious activity.
Marj Fancher, an Attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union in Michigan said that African Americans are often told by their parents to not look an officer in the eye to avoid challenging them and to keep their hands in plain sight.
To hear that those behaviors could be interpreted as criminal shows a need for change, he said.
Troopers, he said, are “not content to be traffic cops. (They) always look to bust people on something more serious.”
The Michigan State Police is a law enforcement agency tasked with patrolling roads — but also stopping and deterring crime and since 2012 its troopers have provided extra patrols and investigative services to 11 cities in Michigan, including Detroit, Flint, Saginaw and Pontiac, where nearly half of the state’s 1.3 million African Americans live.
Among some improvements MSP said it’s willing to make includes, each post having virtual daily “roll call” meetings with troopers before they begin their shifts to talk about, among other things, where to patrol, and supervisors meeting twice in person with troopers each week.
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