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Self-reports of Police Speeding Stops by Race: Results from the North Carolina Reverse Record Check Survey

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Abstract

Survey reports of police stops and driving behavior are a potential methodology for examining the magnitude and prevalence of the “Driving While Black” phenomena. However, estimates of the magnitude or correlates of racial disparity in police stops from self-reported survey data are potentially compromised if the accuracy of self-reports of police stops and driving behavior differ by race. We report on the results of a reverse record check survey in which we directly assess the degree and consequences of differences by race in self-reports of police stops. In our sample of drivers who had been cited for speeding in the preceding year, we found that 77% of the White respondents and 71% of the African American respondents admitted to being stopped. While both groups underreport stops, African Americans do so at a higher rate. This finding is consistent with many past studies which report stronger social desirability effects on survey responses among African Americans. Thus, survey data will tend to underestimate the magnitude of the “Driving While Black” phenomena.

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Notes

  1. These two surveys are part of a larger methodological study on the “Driving While Black” phenomena. That study was also concerned with developing demographic and observational methods for analyzing official police records of stops and with understanding citizen and police interpretations of how racial information is used in stop decisions. This study is described in Smith et al. (2003).

  2. In the context of a survey of police stops we doubt that there are communication or knowledge sources of response error. We assume that registered drivers in the contemporary United States understand the concepts associated with being pulled over by the police and can recognize it when it happens to them. We design our survey to minimize memory problems, but it is likely that some under reporting reflects forgetting that a stop occurred. We control for this possibility in the analyses that follow.

  3. The survey was originally scheduled to run for 6 months, but was fielded one month later than anticipated and was in the field for 7 months. This meant that for some respondents the survey was administered more than a year after the speeding stop that selected them into the sample. This presents possible telescoping errors in response which we discuss below and correct for statistically.

  4. A cooperation rate is the proportion of all cases interviewed of all eligible units ever contacted. AAPOR (1998) Cooperation Rate 1 (COOP1), or the minimum cooperation rate, is the number of complete interviews divided by the number of interviews (complete plus partial) plus the number of non-interviews that involve the identification of and contact with an eligible respondent (refusal and break-off plus other).

  5. AAPOR Response Rate 1 (RR1), or the minimum response rate, is the number of completed interviews divided by the number of interviews (complete plus partial) plus the number of non-interviews (refusal and break-off plus non-contacts plus others) plus all cases of unknown eligibility (unknown if housing unit, plus unknown, other).

  6. The basic race gap in the odds of reporting a speeding stop is that African Americans are 0.57 times as likely as whites to report a speeding stop. If we adjust this to account for the additional influence of the 1 year race difference in black and white sample selection the odds change only slightly to 0.56.

  7. For our sample we only have the number of stops in the last year for those who report any stop to begin with. Thus it is for the sample that is least likely to displaying social desirability response errors. Among this sample, African Americans report an average of 2.55 stops in the last year while whites report 2.13. Interestingly, African Americans reports only 1.2 speeding stops, while whites report 1.59, suggesting that among the population of cited speeders African Americans are being pulled over for other reasons at higher rates than whites.

  8. This was done to anchor recall by respondents in order to mitigate the possibility of telescoping effects. The reference period for stop recall was set at 12 months to aid respondent memory as well as to ensure that the stop being referenced had occurred during the time period employed by interviewers.

  9. We replicated these analyses with self-reports of any stop in the last year and substantive results were the same.

  10. Although the interaction at 65 mile per hour approaches significance (p = 0.235) the sign is negative suggesting that African American’s who were truthful in reporting their speeding stop actually drive slower than those that were not. There is no evidence here of race specific social desirability response effects on self-reports of driving speed.

  11. These analyses were replicated when any stop in the last year was substituted for speeding stops. We also repeated the analyses in Table 4 using a dummy variable for reporting driving ten or more miles per hour above the speed limit and the results were the same. We also reran the analyses in both Tables 3 and 4 deleting a single African American case with very low reported normal driving speeds but the substantive results were unchanged.

  12. Of course, the process may be more complicated than this. If for example, the consequences of a police stop are higher in locales where there is a larger race disparity in police stops, such as North Carolina, we might expect lower recall error in such places and so a smaller race linked social desirability effect. If this was actually happening, then the NC estimate of race linked social desirability may understate the true race difference in reporting in places with few stops or where stops have low consequences. Of course, since the incidence of stops will also be low the differences in estimates will typically be small.

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Correspondence to Donald Tomaskovic-Devey.

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This paper is part of a larger project on racial profiling funded by the National Institute of Justice (#99-MU-CX-0022). The points of view expressed in this paper are those of the authors and do not represent the official position of the National Institute of Justice. Matthew Zingraff, William R. Smith, Marcinda Mason, and Patricia Warren all made important contributions to the design of this project and Bill Smith was particularly generous with comments on this paper. An early draft of this paper was presented at the American Society of Criminology Meeting. November 17, 2000, San Francisco, California.

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Tomaskovic-Devey, D., Wright, C., Czaja, R. et al. Self-reports of Police Speeding Stops by Race: Results from the North Carolina Reverse Record Check Survey. J Quant Criminol 22, 279–297 (2006). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10940-006-9012-0

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