For years, people of color in Washington state have reported that they are pulled over by State Patrol officers more often than white drivers. Reporters Jason Buch and Joy Borkholder, of InvestigateWest, decided to look into whether people of color are also searched more often during those stops.
With a grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism, Borkholder and Buch filed more than 30 public-records requests with state agencies, interviewed more than 50 people, and reviewed data from 8 million traffic stops. They found that Native Americans were five times more likely to be searched than whites. Blacks, Latinos and Pacific Islanders were also more likely to be searched than white people, the data showed.
Yet Borkholder and Buch’s investigation found that when white drivers were searched by State Patrol officers, they were more likely to have contraband or drugs.
“We focused our investigation on searches because it gives you a clearer picture of bias. If you only look at police stops, you can’t account for how many drivers of a particular race or ethnicity are on the road. But if you look at how many of those stops result in searches and whether those searches yield contraband, you can start to see the disproportionality,” Buch said. “Looking at searches also gets us closer to seeing the impact of bias in policing, since a disproportionate rate of searches leads to a disproportionate of arrests.”
After InvestigateWest published their story, it was picked up in state and national media, including the Seattle Times, the Spokane, Wash., Spokesman-Review, and the Associated Press.
The “Driving While Indian” investigation prompted the state Legislature to launch a yearlong review of racial bias in the State Patrol, which is underway. The Legislature also approved funding to boost diversity in the patrol, which is overwhelmingly white and male.