April 6, 2016 - Chuck Epp

April 6, 2016
Chuck Epp

I’m pretty sure everyone listening knows these codes: DUI, Driving Under the Influence (usually of drugs) and DWI, Driving While Intoxicated (usually by alcohol)…but are you familiar with DWB?

DWB is a code with a bitter tastes, an angry edge. It stands for Driving While Black…and it is used to voice the suspicion that Black drivers are pulled over by police officers not because they had committed a crime or even a real traffic violation, but that they are being stopped preemptively because the officer suspects they might be contemplating a crime, and because the officer’s suspicion is based, more than anything else on race.

Our guest today, Charles “Chuck” Epp of the University of Kansas, and his co-authors, Steven Maynard-Moody and Donald Haider-Markel, show in their newly-published book Puller Over, that the criminalization of DWB is no paranoid fantasy, and that the bitterness and anger the abbreviation expresses are not unjustified.

The reason for this, Chuck and his partners show, is not related to traffic stops. Although Black are slightly more likely than Whites to be pulled over…and slightly more likely to get a ticket rather than a warning, both Blacks and Whites tend to view traffic stops as legitimate law enforcement, and do not find them objectionable.

It is the second kind of police stop that kindles rage and a sense of second-class citizenship, what police call “investigatory stops.” Sometimes they have a traffic code predicate, a failure to signal a lane change, driving too slowly, having a burnt out taillight…but sometimes not even that excuse is used. Investigatory stops are based on a police officers suspicion that something might not be quite right. Police departments proclaim investigatory stops are not produced by racial profiling, but nevertheless, they happen to Black drivers twice as often as to Whites. They happen to Black males drivers three times as often, and more serious oppressions like vehicle searches, prolonged questioning or detention or handcuffing are inflicted on Blacks even more disproportionately.

Police say, pro-active investigatory stops prevent crime, but Epp and his co-authors say the evidence to support this is scant. No wonder, their book comes to such a strongly expressed conclusion: “The benefits of investigatory stops are modest and greatly exaggerated; yet their costs are substantial and largely unrecognized. It is time to end this failed practice.”

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