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Mass. report: Nonwhite drivers more often charged, arrested and searched in 2021 and 2022
Mass. report: Nonwhite drivers more often charged, arrested and searched in 2021 and 2022
Mass. report: Nonwhite drivers more often charged, arrested and searched in 2021 and 2022

Published on: 03/02/2024


Gov. Maura T. Healey’s public safety agency Tuesday released a legislatively mandated traffic citation study that found Black and Hispanic drivers were more likely than white drivers to be criminally charged, arrested and searched statewide in 2021 and 2022.

Like a similar report the same agency released in 2022, agency leaders did not appear to consider those disparities when determining which individual departments might be required to collect more detailed data about traffic stops. 

Nor were those findings — which researchers cautioned could not prove racial bias — mentioned in the agency’s press release on the study

The press release stated that a different standard — known as the "veil of darkness" test — identified eight departments in 2021 and 2022 “for potential racial disparities.” 

The news release did not say whether those departments — the Massachusetts State Police barracks in Brookfield and Leominster; and municipal departments in Hanover, Wrentham, Ludlow, Southwick and Westwood; as well as Boston Police District E-18 — would be required to collect follow-up data. 

"Under the statute, (this office) will consult with the Massachusetts Office of the Attorney General to determine the next steps based on research findings, including whether additional data collection or training is required for select law enforcement agencies," the release states.

The "veil of darkness" test assesses whether nonwhite drivers are more likely to be pulled over during the day, when it's easier to see their skin color, than at night.

The researchers found departments statewide, other than the eight flagged by the test, did not pull over drivers of color more often during the day than at night, a finding one outside researcher the T&G spoke with questioned.

The state researchers also found that statewide, of all drivers who were stopped and given at least a warning in 2021, white drivers were criminally cited at a rate of 8.2%, compared to 13% of Black drivers and 16.7% of Hispanic drivers.

In 2022, white drivers were criminally cited at a rate of 7.7%, compared to 12.9% of Black drivers and 17.1% of Hispanic drivers.

In 2021, white drivers were arrested at a rate of 2.1%, Black drivers at 2.6% and Hispanic drivers at 3.1%. In 2022, the arrest rates were 2% for white drivers, 2.3% for Black drivers and 3.2% for Hispanic drivers.

Researchers said the results for criminal citations and arrests were determined to be statistically significant, but that "does not mean that the race/ethnicity of the stopped driver caused the specific stop outcome."

The researchers noted that there are many factors unrelated to racial bias that could impact stop outcomes and also many limitations in the data that prevent a more definitive analysis.

Researchers also found that, in 2021 statewide among departments with enough discretionary motor vehicle searches to qualify, about 0.70% of white drivers were searched, compared with 1.09% of nonwhite drivers. The figures in 2022 were 0.58% of white motorists and 0.9% of nonwhite drivers.

Researchers gave the same caveat regarding causation as the arrest and criminal citation findings, with the added caveat that, with only about 11,000 searches combined in 2021 and 2022, the results should be interpreted with caution.

The study was produced pursuant to a 2019 law that required departments identified as engaging in racial profiling collect, for one year, demographic information on all drivers they stop. 

Massachusetts, unlike about 15 other states, doesn’t require police to record the race of drivers who are let go with a verbal warning

As a result, the state lacks demographic data, about roughly half — some police chiefs estimate more — of all drivers who are pulled over in the state, and is ineligible for millions of dollars in federal funding to study racial profiling. 

The state Legislature, amid opposition from police, has declined for decades to pass laws that would require collection of data on all stops, instead passing a law in 2019 that led to the present study. 

The study, produced by researchers at Worcester State and Salem State universities, did not mention a trend the Telegram & Gazette, Cape Cod Times and USA TODAY identified in November that experts said raises questions about the validity of the data the study relied upon. 

The newspapers’ multiyear analysis of millions of traffic stops found that police, in about one in four stops of men with Hispanic last names between 2014 and 2020, marked the driver as white on the citation

Police say requiring officers to mark their perception of race is unfair and unwise in an increasingly diverse society, and experts said the state's failure to add an ethnicity box to the citations police issue likely plays a role in the error rate.

Reporters also uncovered information that caused some advocates to question officer intent including dozens of examples where men with Hispanic last names who required Spanish interpreters in court on charges of unlicensed driving were marked as white. 

Statistical experts — including some experts whose research is cited in the new state report — told reporters the counting of Hispanic men as white throws into question the validity of the data, noting the potential misidentification rates in some departments exceeded 60%. 

The data, in addition being used in studies that can shape public perception of potential police bias, is used in court by criminal defendants who allege bias played a role in their traffic stops. 

Analysis of the data has long been controversial nationwide. As the report notes, there is no universally accepted standard for what constitutes racial disparities in a particular town.

Critics of the Legislature, including some lawmakers, have questioned the propriety of putting the state's public safety arm in charge of studying whether such disparities exist and questioned the efficacy and wording of the 2019 law.

Asked Wednesday why the study did not address the USA TODAY findings on Hispanic men, a spokesperson for the agency that released it, the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security, wrote that report was the product of an "independent research team" and as such could not "speculate as to what the research team may have considered."

The agency, as it did in November, declined to comment on the newspapers' findings.

Asked why the press release didn't mention the study's findings on the arrest and charge rates of nonwhite motorists, the agency replied that the release "provides readers with convenient access to the full report and related materials, i.e., the Executive Summary, and includes detailed guidance about how to review major findings, methodology, limitations, and links to upcoming public meetings."

A leading expert in the "veil of darkness" test, Matthew Ross of Northeastern University, told the T&G Tuesday that he believes the findings in the state report regarding the test are inaccurate. 

The state report found nonwhite drivers across the state were more likely to be pulled over in darkness than in daylight, indicating, according to that test’s hypothesis, that racial profiling is less likely to be occurring. 

Ross, who analyzed data USA TODAY obtained from the same source, the Registry of Motor vehicles, reached the opposite conclusion. He said he’s confident his study is correct and believes the methodology of the Salem State and Worcester State researchers to be flawed. 

The Executive Office of Public Safety and Security declined to comment on Ross’s critique. The agency has barred its researchers from speaking to reporters. 

As the T&G, Cape Cod Times and USA TODAY reported in November, the public safety agency chose the current research team over a team that had far more experience studying racial disparities in a bid process one expert said raised many questions

Terrence Reidy, a former prosecutor who heads the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security, has declined multiple interview requests on the topic.

Ross said Tuesday it appeared to him that the researchers, despite in his opinion conducting the "veil of darkness" test poorly, did take steps to improve the new report over the old one. 

He noted that researchers added caveats in the form of footnotes to some of their work — some corresponding to criticism he had made to USA TODAY — and added a more robust recommendation section.

In addition to a recommendation also offered in 2022 that the state consider collecting demographic data on all traffic stops, the research team said it should consider collecting data on pedestrian stops. 

It also recommended the state “consider auditing a subsample of race identifications (and missing race classifications) as a validity check, as misidentification has emerged as an issue in other similar state-sponsored reports.” 

A footnote on the recommendation cited reports about Connecticut state troopers creating fake tickets. In that case — which is being probed by federal investigators — the people listed on the fake tickets were disproportionately labeled white, skewing racial profiling study efforts. 

Salem State and Worcester State researchers in the new report recommended a number of things Connecticut and other states do that Massachusetts does not including forming a steering committee with “community feedback” on the report process and investing more money in the effort. 

The researchers also wrote that they “encourage communities not to limit their focus to the Veil of Darkness (VoD) analysis alone, but rather consider all patterns and figures in their police agency’s individual data sheet as a whole, and weigh to what degree they are meaningful on a case-by-case, or city-by-city basis.” 

They further cautioned that communities “should recognize what this report can and cannot do,” adding the report “cannot offer proof of racial (or other) profiling, or its absence for that matter.”

Researchers said they can “only present a cursory, nomothetic approach to understanding patterns of disparity.

“That is, only a handful of key variables can be studied across so many departments, when there are likely other factors that are not measured. 

“More in-depth, case study-style analyses at the department level could provide needed context and better, more meaningful understanding.” 

Reidy’s spokesperson, asked whether his agency agreed with, and might take steps to implement, any of the researchers’ suggestions, said Wednesday it is reviewing them "to determine appropriate next steps."

A footnote to the report states that it does “not necessarily represent the official views” of the agency. The researchers — Gina Curcio Centeno and Joseph Gustafson of Salem State and Francis Olive III of Worcester State —wrote in the acknowledgments that Reidy and others at his agency gave “invaluable support, guidance and feedback.” 

The 881-page report includes an appendix that lists findings relative to a number of statistical disparity tests for every department large enough to study in the state.

The public safety agency will hold virtual public hearings to “present the new report and accept feedback from the public,” as required by the statute, in March. 

All the hearings are scheduled during business hours: 1 p.m. March 20, 10 am. March 21 and 2 p.m. March 26.

Information on how to access the meetings will be posted on, the public safety agency said, while written comments will be accepted until April 11 at [email protected] or mailed to the agency’s Boston office. 

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