Wednesday, April 8, 2009

When is Racial Profiling Discrimination? Rosie Sizer Channels Her Inner Economist

The related question to my provocative title is "and does it matter?" In other words, even if racial profiling is not discriminatory, it might still be morally wrong. I am not going to address this related question here, it is beyond the scope of my little economics blog.

The question in the title comes from this story from OPB's April Baer (whom I haven't quite forgiven for her decision to leave the Morning Edition host spot - no one is quite as good) on Portland Police Chief Rosie Sizer's comments about tracking the success of searches by race.  I know all about where this comes from: a famous paper by John Knowles and Petra Todd that looked at the conviction rate, by race, of vehicles searched from traffic stop data in Maryland.  Good to know Chief Sizer is keeping up with the economics literature as we all know that economists have all the answers.

But let's start from the start.  Suppose you see that police in some jurisdiction are stopping and searching cars driven by African-American (black) drivers just as often as Caucasian (white) drivers even though only 10% of the population is black.  [In Maryland 63% of cars stopped were driven by African-American drivers, while only 18% of all cars on the road were driven by African-Americans along I-95]  This stopping and searching of cars then is disproportionately focused on black drivers and is evidence of racial profiling, stopping and searching cars precisely because they are being driven by black drivers.  Even if it is the type of car itself, say, that is the reason for the search, if that type of car is disproportionately driven by black drivers it could still be considered racial profiling.  But what if police officers are using their wealth of knowledge and experience to judge which cars to search regardless of the race of the driver, and it just so happens that this leads to half the cars searched being driven by black drivers?  In other words, what if officers are quite good at detecting illegal activity and that this activity has disproportionate racial participation.  How could you tell the difference between discriminatory behavior, searching drivers because of race regardless of likelihood of illegal activity, and good policing, searching only cars with a high likelihood of illegal activity?

Well if it is the former, what we would expect is a higher number of unsuccessful searches among those performed on cars driven by blacks than among those driven by whites because blacks are being stopped due to race and not evidence of illegal activity.  This is precisely the test Knowles and Todd did with the Maryland traffic stop and search data.  It turned out that though the searches were disproportionate, the conviction rates from those searches were not.  There was no lower a conviction rate among black drivers that were searched than among white drivers.  So while racial profiling might be the reason for the search it is not, in this case, evidence of racial prejudice.  Now, as I said before, there is a bigger question about whether, even if this is true, racial profiling is justified and should be allowed.  You are welcome to discuss this in the comments, but I am going to leave it as an open question.  It does seem, however, that Chief Sizer wants to do something exactly equivalent to the Knowles and Todd test for Portland Police searches.  It would be good to know, for instance, if there is evidence of racial discrimination.  But even if similar results to the Maryland study are found, the question of the righteousness of profiling remains.

On a related note: my study of racial discrimination in the NFL has a similar design.  I looked at whether the outcomes of players in the NFL were consistent with their draft position and found that non-white players systematically outperformed their draft position while white players underperformed relative to what their draft position would predict.  This is evidence, then, that NFL teams discriminate against non-white players when they draft players into the league.  [Note that the action here is not in the first and second round stars but the in the outcomes of the many players taken the the later rounds]  Why? That is an open question, but I believe that teams find white stars more marketable (at the time the white Ed McCaffrey was a huge media darling in Denver while the statistically better black Rod Smith was not).  I did find some suggestive evidence that teams pay a real price for this behavior where teams that were more egregious in their racial preference fared worse in terms of the their record.

[Image: Scott Sroka]

4 comments:

Dennis said...

There was a survey or study done in Corvallis early in the decade around this issue. One of the findings, if I remember right, was that people of color were not pulled over disproportionate to white people, but people of color (the demographics of Corvallis being such that it would be hard to break out separate ethnicities) were pulled over for longer periods of time. There was no apparent reason for the disparity. I don't remember if people of color were more or less likely to receive a citation or arrest.

The other comment I have is that you can't assume that the conviction rate is free of racial bias, either. Was that controlled for by Knowles and Todd?

Patrick Emerson said...

Dennis,

Very good point, the Knowles and Todd paper assumes that convictions rates are relatively free of racial bais which is a questionable assumption. Studies have shown, for example, that pooer defendants have less competent legal representation.

This assumption of an unbiased 'aftermarket', by the way, is also true of my work. I argued that coaches compnsation and job tenure is mostly based on on-field performance of their teams and thus coaches are therefore less likely to discriminate. If this is not true than my story changes to more confusing differential treatment baes on race between those that hire and those that manage personnel.

smokeykeita said...

The question when is racial profiling discrimination ? my answer to this question is that racial profiling becomes discrimination when the reason you are being profile intially is because of your race and not because you have committed an offense or infraction.

what bring me to this blog today is I live in Portland Oregon and today I got up to go out to an appointment I entered the 72 bus paid my fare recieved a tranfer at the time I got on the bus I had a small cup of coffee which had at that time about 90mm of coffee in it.

I sat on the bus drinking my coffee I got off at inerstate and killingworth to get the Max Train at the Max podium I continue to drink my coffee I enter the Max Train got a seat I had almost finish drinking this coffee however by now the coffee is cold there is no place to throw the containers away on the Max train so I held my cup that now has maybe 5mm of coffee left in it.

Just as I was about to get off the Max the Police ask me for fare validation I showed it to him then he began to complain that I had an " OPEN CONTAINER " asked for my ID and said he was going to write me a warning I said sir I just disposed of the cup isnt a vebal warning enough I did not know you could not have a cup of coffee on the train without a lid on it. at this point I said I am going to report this because this is rediculous.

I am trying to go to an appointment and there is my train he told me to shut up he did not want to hear it and began to write me a warning I thought. I said sir really I feel I am being racially profiled here and your just doing this because I am black dont you have something better to do with your time then waste my time for something that really a verbal warning is sufficient he got mad that I said anything to him about the situation finally he handed me waht he had said was to be a written warning and said here I just gave you a citation now you will have to go to court.

Well to me this is racial profiling number one the Max train had been packed ususally the police go up the aisle asking each person to show they had validated fare he did not do that he had asked no one to show that there fare was validated he decieds to question me just as I was leaving I was the only black person in that section and then what was suppose to be a written warning turned into a citation/ticket.

I got on the next Max Train I went up and down the aisles reading the post finnally I find a sign stating no "open containers" however you are allowed to eat on the max train . I finish my business and got back on the bus to get back to the Max as I was sitting there I saw people on the Max Train drinking whatever they wanted drinking pop outta open container I deceied to that a picture to prove my point if a popcan has a hole in it and it is open it is considered to be an "open container " the same as a can of beer do you see what I mean but these where white people and no police officer I bet has ever giving anyone a ticket for an "OPEN CONTAINER" FOR DRINKING REFRESHMENTS what I am about to do next is ask Trimet to give me a list of every person that has recieved a citation for this " OPEN CONTAINER HAD A CUP OF COFFEE" .

I am going to use the FREEDOM OF INFORMATION ACT TO PROVE MY POINT racial profiling has to stop. I am a Nurse not a criminal AND AT WHAT POINT DOES THIS GO TO THE EXTREME, BECAUSE I AM BLACK HE TOOK IT FURTHER THEN USUAL THAT IS MY POINT AGAIN. "OH" AND I HAVE PICTURES TO PROVE THAT PEOPLE DRINK OUT OF OPEN CONTAINERS ALL THE TIME ON THE MAX TRAIN.

Help me bring solutions to the race problem said...

Hi people it,s me again I went online and looked up Oregon law on "OPEN CONTAINERS" i AM NOT SUPRISED BECAUSE AN OPEN CONTAINER ONLY REFERS TO ALCOHOL, I WILL EXPLAIN .

WHEN ONE IS REFFERING TO AN OPEN CONTAINER LAW THIS RELATES ONLY TO ALCOHOL A CONTAINER MAY BE A BOTTLE, CAN JAR OR ANY RECEPTACLE THAT HOLDS ANY AMOUNT OF ALCOHOL, THIS MAY BE WINE, BEER, SPIRITS, OR LIQUOR WHERE THE TOP IS OPEN OR A SEAL IS BROKEN AND CAN BE CONSUMED BY A PERSON.

OPEN COTAINERS ALSO REFERS TO ANY RECEPTACLE WHERE ALCOHOL HAS BEEN PERTIALLY CONSUMED.

THIS IS OREGON LAW SO WHY AGAIN IS IT THAT I RECIEVED A TICKET FOR AN OPEN CONTAINER FOR A FEW DROPS OF COFFEE IN A CUP WITH NO LID? IT WAS OK TO ASK ME FOR A VALIDATED TICKET, IF YOUR ASKING EVERYONE ELSE, THAT DID NOT HAPPEN, AND WHEN YOU DID STOP THE ONLY BLACK PERSON AND THEY SHOWED YOU VALIDATED FARE THAT WAS SUPPOSE TO BE THE END .

IT TURNED INTO DISCRIMINATION WHEN THE COFFEE BECAME AN ISSUE AND THEN YOU SAY YOUR GOING TO GIVE ME A WRITTEN WARNING AND IT TURNED INTO A TICKET. THIS IS DISCRIMINATION BECAUSE I WAS BEING TREATED DIFFERENT, FURTHER MORE TRI MET CAN LOSE IT'S FEDERAL FUNDING FOR DISCRIMINATION.

BECAUSE IT IS PUBLIC TRANSPORTATION AND FOR PUBLIC USE REGARLESS OF RACE . COLOR, OR PREVIOUS CONDITION OF SERVITUDE. YOU SEE WHITE PEOPLE DONT LIKE TO HEAR ME SAY SUCH WORDS THEY BECOME OFFENSIVE OR DEFENSIVE AS IF YOU JUST HURT THEIR FEELING OR IS OPENING UP A WOUND OR SOMETHING, BUT BELIEVE ME IF THEY GET AWAY WITH TREATING ME LIKE THIS YOU ARE NEXT.

WHOEVER YOU ARE BECAUSE THE PRICE ON THE TICKET IS $175.00 AND WHEN IT ALL COME DOWN TO THE END OF THE DAY IT IS ABOUT MONEY REVENUES. AND I WANT TO TELL YOU THIS TRI MET OFFICERS NAME IT IS N.VAYLON SO YALL BE CAREFUL BECAUSE HE IS VERY IGNORANT I BELIEVE. TRI MET IF THEY WERE SMART WOULD GET RID OF HIM BECAUSE HE IS GOING TO COST THEM MONEY WHEN PEOPLE IN PORTLAND START WISING UP.