AUSTIN (KXAN) -- DPS troopers are inaccurately recording the race of large numbers of minority drivers, mostly Hispanic, as white, according to a KXAN investigation. The agency's traffic stop data reveals racial profiling reports are likely flawed, according to experts.
Sergio Raul Mejia got a traffic citation for having his license plate on the dash of his truck in Georgetown last May. The Texas Department of Public Safety trooper who pulled Mejia over put his race as white on the ticket.
"That's bad," said Mejia. "I'm Hispanic. He was not supposed to put white people," Mejia continued, speaking in broken English. "You don't think you look white?" asked KXAN Investigator Brian Collister. "No, Hispanic," replied Mejia.
A Texas law aimed at preventing racial profiling requires peace officers determine and document the race of every driver to whom they issue a written warning, traffic citation or arrest during a traffic stop. The statute says officers must report: “the person's race or ethnicity, as stated by the person or, if the person does not state the person's race or ethnicity, as determined by the officer to the best of the officer's ability.” White and Hispanic are just two categories listed in the law, which treats race and ethnicity the same for purposes of gathering the statistics.
The Texas Racial Profiling statute requires race and ethnicity be treated the same for purposes of gathering the statistics: "Race or ethnicity" means of a particular descent, including Caucasian, African, Hispanic, Asian, Native American, or Middle Eastern descent.
But a KXAN investigation discovered DPS troopers across the state are inaccurately reporting the race of minority drivers who are African American, Asian, but mostly Hispanic, as white. KXAN uncovered the discrepancies while reviewing more than 16 million DPS traffic citation records dating back to 2010.
Richard Kai-Tzung Chang got a traffic ticket in Austin from a DPS Trooper last April. Chang is from Taiwan and says he believes its obvious he is Asian. But the trooper documented him as white on the citation.
“I was shocked,” Chang told KXAN. “It's almost incomprehensible that I could be mistaken for a white male because I don't look anything like a white male,” Chang continued.
Dominique Deshaun McGrew was arrested last April during a traffic stop near Victoria. In the dashcam video it’s clear that McGrew is African American. But instead of recording him as black, the trooper recorded him as white.
Pastor Gonzalez Sosa was pulled over for speeding earlier this year in Caldwell County. In the dashcam video obtained by KXAN through an open records request, Sosa speaks Spanish to the trooper and tells him he is from Mexico. But the Hispanic trooper, who also speaks Spanish, documented Sosa's race as white on the citation.
DPS statistics unreliable
KXAN showed the findings to Professor Ranjana Natarajan, director of the Civil Rights Clinic at the University of Texas School of Law.
"I think there could be accidents every now and then, but the sheer number of the reports that you found, where it looks like the people who are not white are being classified as white, means that there is something else going on here," Natarajan said.
The professor also believes what we uncovered reveals DPS racial profiling statistics are unreliable.
"It's very disturbing," Natarajan said. "What it shows is that, there either seems to be a complete lack of training on the part of DPS officers and other law enforcement officers about how to report people's race. Or there is deliberate, sort of trying to not follow the policy if they have been trained properly on how to report the race of the drivers whom they stop."
But KXAN's investigation suggests the number of Hispanic drivers stopped by DPS may actually be much higher than what the agency is reporting.
An analysis by KXAN of the DPS traffic stop data shows the five most common last names of drivers stopped and recorded as white by troopers are: Smith, followed by Garcia, Martinez, Hernandez, Gonzalez and Rodriguez.
Although not everyone with a Hispanic last name is of Hispanic descent, KXAN discovered the DPS data shows more than 1.9 million drivers with traditionally Hispanic names listed as white over the past five years. For the same time period, approximately 1.6 million were reported as Hispanic.
Senator: DPS 'playing games'
We showed the list of names to State Senator Jose Rodriguez, D-El Paso.
"We've got to stop playing these kinds of games," Senator Rodriguez said, as he looked at the list. "I mean, people want to know why are Hispanics being singled out? That's a simple question, and you can't go around saying, well, they're white."
People want to know why are Hispanics being singled out? — Sen. Rodriguez
Lawmakers and media have scrutinized the race of drivers stopped by state troopers since the controversial arrest of Sandra Bland. A DPS trooper arrested Bland, who is African American, in Waller County this summer for a minor traffic violation. She later committed suicide in jail, according to the county coroner. The increasing number of Hispanic drivers reported in DPS racial profiling data has also been the focus of those legislative hearings and news reports. A KXAN analysis of the DPS traffic stop data confirms the number of drivers stopped by troopers and recorded as Hispanic has gone up annually since 2010, while the number of drivers recorded as white has gone down.
But a racial-profiling expert says what we uncovered reveals DPS statistics used to create its annual reports on traffic stops do not add up.
"The under-representation of Hispanics and over-representation of Caucasians on the contact data counts has a significant impact on the analysis of racial profiling trends," said Dr. Alex Del Carmen, executive director of the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice and Strategic Studies at Tarleton State University in Fort Worth. "It is imperative that the citation count is accurately recorded and reported by all police officers that interact with the public. This is the only manner in which we can ensure an accurate representation of motor vehicle stops and trends."
Senator Rodriguez demands an explanation
Senator Rodriguez asked DPS to explain the reason behind the trends in DPS's racial profile data.
"Over the last number of years we've had a precipitous drop of highway patrol tickets for Anglo-Americans but a dramatic increase for Hispanics and African Americans, and particularly Hispanics," Rodriguez said. "I mean there's got to be some explanation for that."
When Rodriguez demanded an explanation, DPS Director Steven McCraw, responded to the legislator with a letter claiming the rise in Hispanic traffic stops is partly because his troopers are doing a better job of documenting race. That coming after a change to the racial profiling law in 2009 requiring officers to report if they know the race of the driver prior to a stop.
McCraw wrote: "In implementing this new requirement, Troopers received additional training on the collection of racial profiling data, which emphasized the importance of accurately reporting the race and ethnicity."
KXAN asked DPS for records showing the additional training. The DPS gave us a slide from an agency presentation showing troopers are taught to pick from the categories created in the law, including Hispanic, and told to determine what "most closely represents race."
KXAN requested an interview with McCraw, but DPS declined. So, we caught up with McGraw at a recent Public Safety Commission meeting.
“With what we've discovered, with so many minorities being put down as white, how can you say that the data is still accurate?” asked KXAN Investigator, Brian Collister.
"Your point could be valid," McCraw replied. “If we are not putting all the particular individuals, and we are miscalculating who they are based on what the driver’s license is telling them, that is a problem because that is under representation,” McCraw continued, blaming a flaw in the in-car computer system used by troopers. But he acknowledges troopers have been made aware of the computer systems limitations and trained to determine and report the race of each driver.
Collister asked McCraw: "With the troopers making the determination, why are there still so many being put down as white?"
"I don't know that it is. We need to look at the data. But if it is, then we will need to make adjustments," McCraw replied. He went on to say: "I don't doubt that there may be mistakes made on occasion, but I don't know the details of that until I see the data and I sit down with my experts. And, I'd like to see how wrong we are."
So, why would a state trooper or any police officer record the wrong race of a driver?
That question remains unanswered.
Dashcam video of trooper issuing citation
DPS responds to KXAN's investigation
After Brian Collister's initial exchange with the DPS director at a meeting, Tom Vinger, the Press Secretary for the Texas Department of Public Safety, sent us an email stating the following:
Let us be unequivocal – if the implication of your story is that Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS) troopers are engaging in racial profiling – the department categorically rejects that assertion and takes great exception to any such insinuation. Racial profiling is against the law, against DPS policy, and is not tolerated by the department. Any allegation of racial profiling is taken very seriously by the department and thoroughly investigated.
In fact, since 2010, out of a total of approximately 15 million traffic stops, the DPS Office of Inspector General has received only eight citizen complaints of alleged racial profiling against the Texas Highway Patrol. And after conducting investigations, including reviewing dash cam videos and other evidence, zero complaints were sustained.
“Implying or insinuating racial profiling without concrete evidence is slanderous and unfairly tarnishes the reputation of the commissioned men and women of the Texas Department of Public Safety, including approximately 30 percent who are Hispanic, who proudly risk their lives every day to protect and serve all residents and travelers in Texas,” said Texas Highway Patrol Chief Luis Gonzalez. “We are proud of these brave officers, and we thank the many members of the public who appreciate the job they do in adverse, dangerous situations – and we thank them for their continued support.”
Fueling unfounded insinuations of racial profiling also has the potential to foster an anti-police environment that not only hinders our ability to protect the communities we serve, but could even put officers’ lives at risk.
In regard to data collection, we agree that it is important that the information be accurate, as it is included in the traffic stop data reports each year, which inform state leaders and the public of the racial or ethnic breakdown of drivers involved in DPS traffic stops.
To be clear, the department takes its direction from the Texas Legislature and existing statutes – in this case, the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure Articles 2.131 - 2.1385. We will continue to follow their direction on this important issue.
It should also be noted that the concept of race and ethnicity are complicated issues. Many people get these two categories confused. For instance white is a category of race, while Hispanic is an ethnicity. Race and ethnicity are defined as:
- Race: a socially constructed category of identification based on physical characteristics, ancestry, historical affiliation, or shared culture.
- Ethnicity: identity with or membership in a particular racial, national, or cultural group and observance of that group's customs, beliefs, and language.
With this understanding, someone who identifies as Hispanic can also self-identify as white. A major complicating factor as it relates to traffic stop data is that the national and state law enforcement information systems – that driver license (DL) information interfaces with – do not recognize the ethnicity category of Hispanic. Consequently, collecting 100 percent accurate data is a challenge and not unique to DPS. For instance, a Hispanic DPS employee recently received a traffic ticket from the Austin Police Department. Her last name is a non-Hispanic surname; however, she self-identifies on her DL application as Hispanic. The Austin officer wrote “white” on the ticket. Conversely, when a white female of non-Hispanic ethnicity gets married and takes on her spouse’s Hispanic surname, it does not mean that her race or ethnicity changes.
Based on conversations with KXAN, the department has identified information interoperability limitations with database systems at the state and national level. Law enforcement information systems utilized by every law enforcement agency in the nation have five specific codes for race. Hispanic is not included in those codes as it is an ethnicity, not a race. In these systems, ethnicity can be included in an individual’s record, but that field is supplemental – it is not searchable and will not replace the race identifier. For example, even though someone may self-identify as Hispanic on their Texas driver license application and are categorized as such in that system, that Hispanic code is not recognized in the race field of the state and national law enforcement databases. The systems will convert that Hispanic designation to “unknown” or “other” in the race field. The department will explore options to permit DPS traffic stop data to reflect the race or ethnicity designated by the applicant in the Texas DL system. That way, the information ultimately reflected in the traffic stop data collected by law enforcement would have been selected directly by the driver – which would eliminate the need for troopers and other law enforcement officers to “guess” a driver’s race or ethnicity. As a result, this process would improve the accuracy of the data. The department will also continue to explore options to further refine the data accuracy and will share those findings with state leaders and other law enforcement officials.
The Hispanic designation on the Texas driver license application (and in the Texas driver license system) is relatively new in our state. Beginning in 2010, the DL system was able to process the Hispanic ethnicity designation when an applicant chose to write Hispanic on their DL application. In 2013, the DL application was changed so that Hispanic could specifically be selected by an applicant as an ethnicity option. A typical Texas driver license is valid for six years, so most drivers only visit a DL office once every six years – and many who renew their license online will only visit a DL office every 12 years. Therefore, it will be quite some time before the driver license database will serve as an accurate indicator of drivers self-identifying as Hispanic.
The information guiding troopers on how to select the race or ethnicity of a traffic violator for data collection purposes is taught during the DPS Training Academy and is part of DPS procedures. That said, in an effort to enhance the precision of this important reporting requirement, the department will be issuing additional guidance to all members of the Texas Highway Patrol reminding them that they are to select race or ethnicity during a traffic stop based on the totality of the information they have at their disposal to the best of their ability. Troopers will also be reminded to change the race or ethnicity that auto-populates within the citation or warning on their in-car computer when appropriate. The department is exploring possible IT solutions that may help in this effort. Additionally the department will enhance this section of the Training Academy curriculum, and will also cover this procedure in the next Texas Highway Patrol in-service training for current troopers.
Keep in mind, that since the selection of a traffic violator’s race/ethnicity is based on the officer’s best judgement, it serves to reason that there will always be some flaws – just as trying to ascertain a person’s ethnicity solely based on a surname is also flawed. That said, the department is committed to taking any steps necessary to increase the accuracy of this reporting.
Questions have also been raised about drivers from Mexico who may have been classified as white. Given that there are on average more than 2 million traffic stops per year, these numbers would represent less than one percent of the total, and therefore would not be statistically significant. According to DPS statistics for the first nine months of 2015, 96.5 percent of Mexico licensees were listed as Hispanic.
It is important to note that potential errors in the designation of race or ethnicity by an officer does not in any way translate to racial profiling – and any attempt to draw a direct correlation between potential data errors and conducting racial profiling is simply illogical and reckless. We would urge KXAN not to misconstrue this issue as racial profiling for all the reasons outlined in our response.
Contributors: Ben Friberg, David Barer, Rachel Garza, Josh Hinkle, Robert Sims, Calily Bien, Patrick Tolbert and Chad Cross