2005 duPont Award Winners: ‘A Pattern of Suspicion’

Jan 10, 2005  •  Post A Comment

When “Dateline’s” John Larson researched the 2001 death of African American teenager Timothy Thomas in Cincinnati that touched off days of riots there, he uncovered an oddity. In the months before his death at the hands of police, Mr. Thomas had been ticketed for a number of nonmoving violations. Mr. Larson gambled that Mr. Thomas wasn’t the only African American in that situation.

Mr. Larson and investigative producers Andy Lehren and Jason Samuels began a 14-month investigation in which they sifted through a public database of traffic tickets in Cincinnati to see if there was a pattern to “discretionary” tickets-those for expired registration, tinted windows or loud music, for instance. They were often used as excuses to search for drugs, Mr. Larson explained.

“We searched high-crime and low-crime neighborhoods. We searched black and white neighborhoods, suburban and inner-city neighborhoods,” he said. The team expanded the search beyond Cincinnati to include 16 cities around the country, from San Diego to Boston. In total, “Dateline” examined more than 100,000 tickets issued by Cincinnati police and more than 4 million traffic stops and tickets issued in other cities.

“What emerged in city after city was black and white drivers are equally bad drivers and get the exact same amount of moving violations. … But for some unknown reason, blacks get almost three times the amount of discretionary tickets,” Mr. Larson said. “It raised questions of why are these people being pulled over.”

The answer: Racial profiling was likely at play. “What this report did was to ask questions about whether it’s happening and how it’s happening, and what it suggests is that it’s institutionalized,” Mr. Larson said.

He added, “There is no question policemen on the front line are doing their best to fight a losing war, the war on drugs, and using the tools they are legally given. But once you start to learn about it, you realize police are being taught and reinforced on how to use their tools legally and they are being unequally applied … so it’s not so much about whether or not individual officers are racist, but whether or not the practice skews racially, and the evidence suggests it does.”

Mr. Larson said many of the police departments in cities cited in the report are now using the “Dateline” piece to educate officers about racial profiling.