ACLU Report Uncovers Racial Profiling and Poor Police Work in Rhode Island

November 17, 2005 12:00 am

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ACLU of Rhode Island
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PROVIDENCE, RI — In a 30-page report released today, the American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island said that a review of the latest statistics on police department traffic stop searches shows continued evidence of racial profiling in the state. The ACLU called the search practices poor police work because, according to the statistics, white drivers are more likely to be found with contraband.

The ACLU’s report, which spans nine months of data collection, found no general trend of improvement since a 2001-2002 study shed light on racial profiling in Rhode Island.

“Rhode Island now has close to three years of irrefutable statistics documenting significant racial disparities in police searches that cannot be explained by any factor other than race,” said Steven Brown, Executive Director of the ACLU of Rhode Island. “Yet it appears that most departments are not taking even minimal steps to find out who or what is responsible for this problem.”

Like the earlier study, today’s report revealed that racial minorities remain more than twice as likely as white drivers to be searched even though they are less likely to be found with contraband, such as drugs. The ACLU report notes that discretionary searches by police actually turn up contraband less than one-fourth of the time, even though the searches are purportedly based on an officer’s “reasonable suspicion” or “probable cause” to believe that contraband will be found. In other words, an officers’ “reasonable suspicion” is wrong more than three out of four times.

The report concludes: “Stereotyping black and Hispanic drivers as being more likely to have contraband leads police officers to spend limited resources and time on unproductive fishing expeditions. Reducing these disparities is not just a matter of basic fairness, it is a matter of good policing.” In fact, the report notes, police departments that search fewer vehicles are generally likely to have a higher “hit” rate for contraband. Likewise, lower racial disparities generally correlate with higher “hit” rates.

In its report, the ACLU calls for various reforms, such as requiring every police department to submit a report confirming that traffic stop cards have been reviewed for disparities, and indicating what actions have been taken in response to any patterns relating to officers, locations or practices that are responsible for the disparity; requiring police to document their “probable cause” or “reasonable suspicion” grounds for conducting a search; and banning so-called “pretext stops” of drivers.

“This is no longer just a problem of bad police-community relations,” said Brown. “Police departments should also be concerned about the considerable time and resources being spent by officers to engage in unproductive searches. We look forward to working with the General Assembly in January to address this serious issue.”

A copy of the ACLU’s report is available at:

For more information on the ACLU’s previous analysis of traffic stop searches in Rhode Island, go to:

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