'If everybody's white, there can't be any racial bias': The disappearance of Hispanic drivers from traffic records
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Series: Unwatched

A Louisiana Law Department That Polices Itself

When sheriff's deputies in Jefferson Parish, Louisiana, pulled over Octavio Lopez for an expired inspection tag in 2018, they wrote on his traffic ticket that he is white. Lopez, who is from Nicaragua, is Hispanic and speaks only Spanish, said his wife.

In fact, of the 167 tickets issued by deputies to drivers with the last name Lopez over a nearly six-year span, not one of the motorists was labeled as Hispanic, according to records provided by the Jefferson Parish clerk of court. The same was true of the 252 tickets issued to people with the last name of Rodriguez, 234 named Martinez, 223 with the last name Hernandez and 189 with the surname Garcia.

This kind of misidentification is widespread — and not without harm. Across America, law enforcement agencies have been accused of targeting Hispanic drivers, failing to collect data on those traffic stops, and covering up potential officer misconduct and aggressive immigration enforcement by identifying people as white on tickets.

“If everybody's white, there can't be any racial bias," Frank Baumgartner, a political science professor at the University of North Carolina of Chapel Hill, told WWNO/WRKF and ProPublica.

Nationally, states have tried to patch this data loophole and tighten controls against racial profiling. In recent years, legislators have passed widely hailed traffic stop data-collection laws in California, Colorado, Illinois, Oregon, Virginia and Washington, D.C. This April, Alabama became the 22nd state to enact similar legislation.

Though Louisiana has had its own data-collection requirement for two decades, it contains a loophole unlike any other state: It exempts law enforcement agencies from collecting and delivering data to the state if they have an anti-racial-profiling policy in place. This has rendered the law essentially worthless, said Josh Parker, a senior staff attorney at the Policing Project, a public safety research nonprofit at the New York University School of Law.

Louisiana State Rep. Royce Duplessis, D-New Orleans, attempted to remove the exemption two years ago, but law enforcement agencies protested. Instead, he was forced to convene a task force to study the issue, which thus far hasn't produced any results, he said.

“They don't want the data because they know what it would reveal," Duplessis said of law enforcement agencies.

To understand the impact of the state's unique policy, WWNO/WRKF and ProPublica looked at nearly six years of data on traffic citations issued by the New Orleans Police Department in the state's largest city, by the Jefferson Parish Sheriff's Office, and by the state police in Jefferson Parish. The parish was chosen because it has the largest Hispanic population in the state, and because the Sheriff's Office, which is the primary police presence there, has been routinely accused by residents and local activists of harassing and profiling Hispanic people.

The data showed that of the almost 80,000 tickets that the Louisiana State Police handed out in Jefferson Parish over nearly six years, not a single one was issued to a person labeled as Hispanic.

It showed a similar pattern in Jefferson Parish Sheriff's Office: Of the more than 73,000 traffic tickets the office issued between 2015 and September 2020, deputies identified only six of the cited people as Hispanic. As of 2020, Hispanics made up 18% of the parish's population of more than 440,000.

By contrast, the New Orleans Police Department issued about 7,000 tickets to Hispanic people during the same period when the Sheriff's Office claimed it issued only six. That represented 4% of all tickets in New Orleans, where the overall percentage of Hispanic people was 8% in 2020.

Baumgartner said that in many law enforcement agencies, there is “no real rhyme or reason or logic" to how officers classify race. “The white/black distinction is generally well recorded, but the Hispanic one is not. Many Hispanics are wrongly classified as white." The data bears out Baumgartner's point in an alarming way: Unlike Hispanic drivers, Black drivers in Jefferson Parish were cited at a rate 1.5 times what would be expected based on their share of the population.

State Police spokesperson Lt. Melissa Matey, as an explanation for not counting Hispanics, cited the current National Crime Information Center standards, which don't include Hispanic as a race. The Jefferson Parish Sheriff's Office did not respond to emails and phone calls requesting comment.

While Hispanic is an ethnicity, more than 80% of law enforcement agencies use it as a race when collecting information from drivers during traffic stops, according to a sample of 69 departments studied by one expert on racial profiling.

Traffic stops are the most common interaction between citizens and police, and often lead to finding people who have outstanding warrants or who are in the country illegally. As a result, they present the most opportunities for abuse and misconduct, said Jeffrey Fagan, a professor at Columbia Law School.

Failure to track and analyze traffic stop data has the potential to mask racial profiling, he cautioned, especially for the Jefferson Parish sheriff's department, which has long been plagued by charges of racism. A previous investigation by WWNO/WRKF and ProPublica found that more than 70% of the people Jefferson Parish deputies shot at during the past eight years were Black, more than double the parish's Black population. And 12 of the 16 people who died after being shot or restrained by deputies during that time were Black men.

By failing to scrutinize the actions of its deputies during traffic stops, the Sheriff's Office is “willfully blinding" itself to the fact that it could be engaging in racially biased enforcement of the law, Fagan said. “And they're blinding themselves to the fact that the inaccuracy rises to the level of a potential constitutional violation," he added.

Based in part on the findings of the news organizations' investigation, the American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana sent a letter last week to the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Louisiana requesting a “pattern-or-practice" investigation into the Sheriff's Office, a type of inquiry that typically focuses on departments accused of systemic and institutional misconduct, abuses and corruption.

“For decades, JPSO, under color of law, has systematically violated the rights of Black and Brown people in Jefferson Parish," wrote Alanah Odoms, executive director. “Rather than institute reforms in response to public outrage, the Sheriff's Office prefers to blame the victims and their families. A federal investigation is necessary and appropriate to address this pattern and practice of abuse."

“How Do They Know That They're Doing an Effective Job?"

For years, many in Jefferson Parish's Hispanic community have accused the Sheriff's Office of targeting them for stops with the intention of investigating their immigration status. In one high-profile case from 2017, Atdner Casco, a Honduran native, claimed he was beaten and robbed of more than $2,000 by deputies working on a task force dedicated to identifying and deporting undocumented people.

Casco filed a lawsuit against the Sheriff's Office, which settled last year for $50,000. One detective was fired.

Casco's attorneys, Casey Denson and Kenneth Bordes, said the stop and detention of their client — who is now eligible for a U visa, which grants permanent residency to crime victims — was a clear case of racial profiling conducted on behalf of immigration services. They pointed to a statement provided by the supervising detective on the scene that day who said, based on his eight years of experience working narcotics, “Hispanic males" are “usually involved in some type of illegal activity."

Over the last decade, similar allegations of discriminatory practices against Hispanic communities have prompted the Department of Justice to investigate law enforcement agencies in states including North Carolina, Connecticut, Arizona, Louisiana and New York.

In a 2011 report on New Orleans, DOJ investigators noted that “Latinos in New Orleans, especially young Latino males, reported that NOPD officers stop them for unknown reasons or for minor offenses that would not ordinarily merit police attention, and then question them regarding immigration status." (Under a subsequent federal consent decree, the police department implemented a policy against inquiring about immigration status, and it now stops Hispanic people at a rate roughly commensurate with their share of the population.)

Police departments that allegedly engage in racial profiling typically share a common trait: a failure to collect and analyze traffic stop data, said Cheryl Phillips, co-founder of Stanford University's Open Policing Project, which has studied traffic stop data from more than 33 state law enforcement agencies and 57 of the largest city police departments in each state.

Connecticut's East Haven Police Department, for example, was criticized by DOJ investigators for unfairly targeting Latinos in traffic enforcement, but also for “woefully failing to design and implement internal systems of control that would identify, track, and prevent such misconduct."

“How do they know that they're doing an effective job of not racially profiling if they don't actually look at their stops? If they don't actually evaluate their performance?" Phillips said.

According to the Policing Project at NYU, only 22 states and Washington, D.C., require the collection of data on traffic stops. And in those, “many agencies store data in ways that make it difficult — if not impossible — to standardize and analyze, which in turn makes it difficult to identify patterns of behavior and inform changes to policy or practice," the authors wrote in a 2020 report.

This is the case in Louisiana, where efforts to rein in racial profiling have been halting at best. In 2001, the state legislature passed a statute that was supposed to improve data collection in traffic stops to combat biased policing. The statute requires officers to record the race, gender and age of drivers during all traffic stops. The race of the driver is to be based on the “observation and perception of the law enforcement officer," according to the statute. It “shall not be required to be provided by the person stopped."

The data is sent to the Department of Public Safety and Corrections, which is then supposed to send an annual report on to the governor and legislature.

But because of the law's provision that departments that have an anti-racial-profiling policy in place don't have to collect and deliver data, many don't. A report from the Southern Poverty Law Center found that in 2018, about two-thirds of the state's 331 law enforcement agencies had an anti-racial-profiling policy in place, exempting them from reporting data to the state. Of the 109 agencies that had no policy, only two had submitted data over the previous 18 years, according to the report, despite the law.

The statute's original sponsor, then-Rep. Cedric Richmond, who is now a White House senior adviser, originally hoped to create a million-dollar data collection system; when the legislature allocated no money to the effort, the exemption was added. In a 2001 Times-Picayune story, Richmond later said that the goal of the law had never been data collection, but ensuring that law enforcement agencies were discouraging racial profiling through policy.

That same story detailed how law enforcement agencies were scrambling to enact policies specifically to avoid a data collection process they described as “overbearing."

“It's so hard. It's too much paperwork," then-Covington Police Chief Jerry DiFranco said of the data collection requirements.

Parker with the NYU Policing Project described Louisiana's carve-out as “very unusual and unacceptable." Any law enforcement agency can write a policy against racial profiling, he said, but they must be able prove officers are adhering to the policy and that the policy itself is effective in eliminating racial disparities. And that's what the collection and analysis of data accomplishes.

Failure to do so is the “antithesis of democratic policing," Parker said.

A Policy on Paper

On paper, Jefferson Parish's policy against racial profiling is clear: “racial, ethnic, religious affiliation and gender-based profiling … are totally unacceptable." Motorists are only to be stopped “upon reasonable suspicion that they have committed, are committing or are about to commit an infraction."

The policy specifically addresses the misidentification of race. It states that “the deliberate recording of any misleading information related to the actual or perceived race, ethnicity, gender, religious affiliation or sexual orientation of a person stopped … is prohibited and a cause for disciplinary action, up to and including dismissal."

But in practice, that policy does not appear to be enforced. The six stops identified as Hispanic represent .008% of all 73,000 stops made in a place where roughly 18% of the population is Hispanic. (The findings for white drivers is more complicated: The data shows white people were stopped at rates roughly equivalent to their share of the population, but that includes what appear to be thousands of Hispanic people wrongly categorized as white.)

The records indicated that Jefferson Parish deputies tend to classify Hispanic drivers as white: Five of the top 10 most common last names of people cited as “white" on tickets were Rodriguez, Martinez, Hernandez, Garcia and Lopez. That's basically impossible: the U.S. Census Bureau says more than 90% of people with those five last names are Hispanic.

Seven experts on racial profiling who reviewed the Jefferson Parish data obtained by WWNO/WRKF and ProPublica said the level of misidentification is nearly unparalleled around the country. Three who have done in-depth studies of traffic stop data collection could name only one other law enforcement agency — the Texas Department of Public Safety — that engaged in the same practice to a similar extent.

To try to assess the actual numbers, the news organizations looked at the traffic stops by last name.

We looked at the top 10 names of white people cited in the list, which represented about 1,800 stops. Six of the top seven names were reported in the U.S. Census Bureau surname tables as more than 90% likely to belong to people who do not identify as white. We could not look at all names in our data set because among the less common last names, there were many for which we could not reliably assign a race.

According to an attorney for the Jefferson Parish clerk of court, where the data is held, the misidentification is happening at the time of the stop. Traffic citations used by the Sheriff's Office are handwritten and include a blank space for race and sex. It is up to the deputy to determine the person's race or ethnicity, which they typically do by hand-writing single letters on the ticket: W for white, B for Black, A for Asian and H for Hispanic, for example.

The Sheriff's Office did not respond when asked whether their deputies are trained to exclude the category of Hispanic when determining someone's race.

The Sheriff's Office sends information from those forms to the traffic court, which uploads the data into its system, said Carey Daste, in-house counsel for the clerk of court. Daste and Donald Finger, judicial administrator for 1st Parish Court, said any errors occurring in the identification of someone's race or ethnicity are not happening on their end, as they are simply the recipients of the data and do not input any information themselves.

The Stanford project has evaluated more than 100 million records from law enforcement agencies across the country, and of those, only the Texas Department of Public Safety appears to have misidentified Hispanic people as consistently as the Jefferson Parish Sheriff's Office, Phillips said.

A Texas state law requires officers to record the race of every driver during traffic stops to combat racial profiling. But an investigation by TV station KXAN in Austin found that between 2010 and 2015, troopers with the Texas Department of Public Safety misidentified “more than 1.9 million drivers with traditionally Hispanic names" as white. And just like in Jefferson Parish, the “most common last names of drivers stopped and recorded as white by troopers [were]: Smith, followed by Garcia, Martinez, Hernandez, Gonzalez and Rodriguez," according to the report.

Texas Department of Public Safety Director Steven McCraw said at the time the problem could be attributed to errors made by the troopers or flaws with the department's computer system, saying he would work to address both. A year after the 2015 investigation, the number of Hispanic people misidentified as white had dropped by more than 75% due to an increased focus on improving the accuracy of data collection.

Critics, however, assert that misidentification by officers may be done on purpose, to conceal racial profiling. Alex del Carmen, an associate dean and professor at Tarleton State University's School of Criminology, Criminal Justice and Strategic Studies, said it is difficult to prove intent. At the same time, he added that it is “inconceivable" for a deputy to look at a person who speaks only Spanish, who is listening to Spanish music in his car, and who has the skin tone of someone of Hispanic descent, and to mark them as white without there being some intention behind the action.

“You could say the person was lazy," del Carmen said. “You could also say, well, maybe the officer intentionally did that to be able to lower the number of individual Hispanics that he or she stopped, because they were being scrutinized."

A Fear of Driving

Local activists and some Hispanic residents of Jefferson Parish do not believe that the misidentification of their ethnicity by deputies is a series of innocent errors, given the history of the Sheriff's Office.

Since 2000, the Hispanic population in Jefferson Parish has more than doubled, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, growth driven in part by Central American immigrants arriving in search of work during the rebuilding efforts after Hurricane Katrina. Many of these immigrants settled in Jefferson Parish due to affordable rents and landlords willing to accommodate undocumented people.

Tensions escalated during the Trump administration, when anti-immigrant rhetoric was at its height. While New Orleans refused to work with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and was at one time labeled a sanctuary city by state Attorney General Jeff Landry, the federal government found a willing partner in the Jefferson Parish Sheriff's Office.

“The Trump policy on immigration is the first one in a long time that has made any sense to me," then-Sheriff Newell Normand said in 2017. A year later, his successor, current Sheriff Joe Lopinto, told a group of Hispanic activists that he would continue the policies of his predecessor, “even though it may lead to the deportation of undocumented immigrants," according to The Times-Picayune and The New Orleans Advocate.

The Department of Homeland Security has awarded the Sheriff's Office multiple grants since 2017 to assist in the identification and deportation of undocumented people. One of the key tactics in doing so is traffic stops, which has left many Hispanic people in Jefferson Parish afraid to drive.

“I think we just leave our houses kind of terrified," said a local activist who asked to remain anonymous due to his immigration status. “I'm white-knuckled on the steering wheel, just making sure I'm always going the speed limit and that everything on my car is perfect. Because for any tiny thing, you just don't know how the police might react and what could happen."

Without the data collection to depend on, determining whether Hispanic drivers have been stopped disproportionately often is difficult. The news organizations tried. To show there had been disproportionate ticketing of Hispanic motorists in Jefferson Parish, we would have needed a way to reliably reassign races to everyone in the data set, but there were many names that we could not reliably assign a race to. An analysis based on where drivers live was not possible given limited address information on the citations.

Nonetheless, Rachel Taber, a local immigration activist, said she has witnessed sheriff's deputies cruising predominantly Hispanic neighborhoods, stopping people randomly, and then arresting them in coordination with ICE agents.

“People have learned through lived experience that the police are not someone you can go to for protection, but are dangerous to communities of color," Taber said.

Constantino Rodriguez was cited for driving without a license in 2019 and misidentified as white. He owns a concrete company, and he said sheriff's deputies routinely pull over his employees, who are mostly Hispanic and work in the construction industry, which is known to employ undocumented people.

“I was on vacation and my guys called me and said they got pulled over one block from the job because they didn't have seat belts on," he said. “They asked for their IDs, asked where they were from and if they spoke English."

Rodriguez said this happens several times a week. The records showing that only six Hispanic people were cited over a six-year period, he said, are “complete and utter lies."