Driving while black in Dubuque: There’s good news and bad news

Photo by Matty Ring via Flickr.

First, the good news: People of color are no more likely to be pulled over by the police while driving in Dubuque than white drivers are, according to a new study conducted by researchers from St. Ambrose University in Davenport.

Now, the bad news: Once pulled over, things are very different for drivers from minority groups. They are 20 percent more likely to be issued a citation and two-and-a-half times more likely to be arrested.

Graduate students from St. Ambrose monitored traffic stops conducted this year in areas of Dubuque with statistically significant minority populations from January to May. The study was commissioned in September by the Dubuque City Council to determine if there was any evidence of bias in how city police conduct traffic stops.

“We found no evidence of systematic racial profiling in Dubuque,” St. Ambrose Professor of Criminal Justice Chris Barnum told the Dubuque Telegraph Herald. Some conservative news outlets around the country, such as the Washington Times, shortened that statement in their headlines to “Dubuque has no racial profiling in traffic stops.”

The report doesn’t offer an explanation for why people of color are more likely to be cited or arrested. “Further study is needed,” Barnum said, because the current data is too limited to identify systemic problems.

Barnum and his researchers are also conducting a multi-year study of racial disparity in traffic stops in Davenport, where St. Ambrose is located. African American drivers are still stopped at a higher rate than white drivers in Davenport, but that rate has declined since the study began in 2012. The most recent report, released in October 2016, found that whites were more likely to be issued citations in traffic stops, but African Americans were more than two times more likely to be arrested. The cars of African Americans were two-and-a-half times more likely to be searched by the police, even though searches of cars with white drivers were more likely to result in the seizure of illegal items.

The only other similar studies in Iowa of racial disparity in traffic stops have been conducted in Iowa City. The Iowa City Police Department (ICPD) began collecting demographic data on traffic stops in 1999. A 2004 study produced by researchers from the University of Louisville relying on the ICPD data found that African American and Hispanic drivers were more likely to be stopped than white drivers.

Barnum and his researchers began examining traffic stops in Iowa City in 2006, using the ICPD demographic information and other data. Starting in 2014, the St. Ambrose team presented its findings. The most recent report, issued in April 2016 and examining stops conducted between 2007 and February 2016, found that African American and Hispanic drivers were more likely to be stopped than either white or Asian drivers. They were also 1.28 times more likely to be cited, and two times more likely to be asked to submit to a warrant-less search of their vehicle. More significantly, African American and Hispanic drivers were two times more likely than white or Asian drivers to be arrested during a traffic stop. Barnum said, however, that the rate of disproportionate arrests between racial groups had been on a downward trend since 2007.

In response to the 2016 report, then-ICPD Chief Sam Hargadine told the city council, “I try to have regular meetings with Dr. Barnum, and there’s things I think they’re still working on and that we’re still working on, but I’m convinced that there will be continual improvement.”

According to the Telegraph Herald, officials in Dubuque have not yet decided on a response to that city’s traffic stop study.

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