State police data: More than 1/5 of traffic stops involve Black motorists

Michigan State Police photo

More than one in every five — 21.5% — of Michigan State Police (MSP) traffic stops in 2020 involved Black motorists — a percentage significantly higher than the African-American population in Michigan that stands at about 14%.  

State Sen. Erika Geiss (D-Taylor), executive vice chair of the Michigan Legislative Black Caucus, was disturbed after reviewing the data compiled by MSP.

“It reveals and confirms what many Black motorists and passengers in Michigan already knew — that Black motorists are pulled over at a  disproportionately higher rate compared to other racial and ethnic groups in the state,” said Geiss.

The Advance reported in September that the percentage of MSP traffic stops of Blacks rose each year between 2017 and 2019. The trend continued in 2020, according to MSP data, as Black motorists were involved in 65,917 traffic stops by MSP troopers. 

What’s more, African Americans were the only racial group that had a percentage of stops that significantly exceeded its percentage of the state population. 

An MSP official said on Wednesday that “without more in-depth analysis, it would be premature to draw any definitive conclusions at this point.”  

“There are many factors that must be taken into account to develop a comprehensive understanding of what is occurring when it comes to traffic stop activity,” said Breanna Moore, MSP outreach and community engagement coordinator.

Michigan State Police traffic stop chart

Data breakdown by race

Traffic stops involving whites were more consistent with their percentage of the state population. In 2020, stops involving whites were 72.45% of the overall stops. Whites compose 74.70% of the state’s overall population. U.S. Census Bureau data for the year 2020 was not yet available, so MSP used 2019 census data instead.

Similarly, traffic stops involving Latino motorists were significantly lower than their percentage of the population. In 2020, only 2.26% of the overall stops involved them. Latinos compose 5.3% of the state’s overall population.

Likewise, traffic stops of Native Americans and Asian Americans also were significantly lower than their percentage of the population. In 2020, Native Americans accounted for .36% of the overall stops  and compose .70% of the state’s population. Asian Americans accounted for .71% of the overall stops and compose 3.40% of the state’s population. 

In recent years, some civil rights and social justice organizations have been critical of the department. The Detroit Branch NAACP for several years has blasted MSP for its selective policing and hiring record. 

“The current state of the Michigan State Police is one that has gone backwards since 1993,” Detroit Branch President Wendell Anthony told the Advance in 2018.

As of April 3, only 56 of MSP’s 1,036 troopers, or 5.3%, are Black. Of that number, 48 are men and eight are women.  

The American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan (ACLU) last month filed a lawsuit against MSP on behalf of two African Americans who say that they were pulled over by MSP officers and were racially profiled.

The incident occurred in August 2019 in Oak Park near the Detroit border. Camara Sankofa, 50, and Shanelle Thomas, 35, both educators at the time, were detained for more than two hours and later released without citation. They described the situation as “humiliating.”

Nakia Wallace, co-founder of Detroit Will Breathe, an organization that has held dozens of public police reform demonstrations throughout metro Detroit in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis last May, said that MSP policies are rooted in “targeted systemic racism.” 

“It is a policy that is dispensed and carried out and it’s not happenstance,” said Wallace. 

ACLU files discrimination suit against Michigan State Police 

MSP’s plan to strengthen data collection and improve performance

Geiss called for MSP to “get to the bottom of why this disparity is occurring and take corrective actions to address and remove racial bias in their operations.”

Moore said that MSP will bring on an independent research firm to conduct an “in-depth analysis of the data to determine if its policies or procedures are leading to disparate treatment of some motorists.”

In January 2021, two researchers from the School of Criminal Justice at Michigan State University were identified to analyze data. Moore said that they are currently working with the department to develop an internal dashboard that will allow visualization of the department’s traffic stop data for review by supervisors. They will also help to establish internal benchmarks that will identify instances where a disparity may exist.

Future phases of the project, Moore said, will include the identification of more accurate external benchmarks to use for data comparison and analysis, rather than relying on census data. In addition, an “advanced analysis of the department’s traffic stop data will examine whether racial and ethnic minorities disproportionately receive “sanctions and other negative outcomes after a traffic stop.”

The MSP is also in the process of finalizing a contract with another vendor who will be tasked with providing expert advice to assist in the identification, documentation and analysis of traffic stop processes and related data.

Michigan State Police is a long way from true diversity, critics say

“This complementary work will help to address any policy or procedures that may be found to have a disparate impact and will help us to make improvements to our practices that will ensure equitable treatment,” said Moore.

State Rep. Tyrone Carter (D-Detroit), who is African American, was disappointed but not surprised by the traffic stop statistics. The former Wayne County Sheriff deputy called for strengthened cultural sensitivity training and has helped to sponsor police reform legislation in the state House.

“If they [MSP] are serious about it, a couple of members from the [Michigan Legislative Black Caucus] could sit down with them and have a real conversation about policing in Black communities,” said Carter. “Until we do that, it’s not going to change.”

Mark Fancher, ACLU of Michigan’s Racial Justice Project staff attorney, believes that MSP should better share its plan with external groups like his organization.

“I think that people need to interview the troopers in a way that they are truthful and candid about how they do their business,” said Fancher.  

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Ken Coleman covers Southeast Michigan, economic justice and civil rights. He is a former Michigan Chronicle senior editor and served as the American Black Journal segment host on Detroit Public Television. He has written and published four books on black life in Detroit, including Soul on Air: Blacks Who Helped to Define Radio in Detroit and Forever Young: A Coleman Reader. His work has been cited by the Detroit News, Detroit Free Press, History Channel and CNN. Additionally, he was an essayist for the award-winning book, Detroit 1967: Origins, Impacts, Legacies. Ken has served as a spokesperson for the Michigan Democratic Party, Detroit Public Schools, U.S. Sen. Gary Peters and U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence. Previously to joining the Advance, he worked for the Detroit Federation of Teachers as a communications specialist. He is a Historical Society of Michigan trustee and a Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metropolitan Detroit advisory board member.