Ryan McClinton, a 31-year-old black man, was driving a burgundy Ford Explorer in the Arden Fair area in 2009 when he was pulled over by Sacramento police for a loud radio.
He was listening to a sports talk show.
The stop was one of about 35 times police pulled him over that year, he said. With only “two, maybe three citations” that came out of the encounters, McClinton said he thinks his main offense was “driving while black,” cultural shorthand for the perception that black drivers are stopped just because of their race.
A Bee review of stops by the Sacramento Police Department from June 2008 to February 2017 found black drivers, especially men, are pulled over more often than others in the city – and have been for years.
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About 13 percent of the city’s driving-age population is black, but about 32 percent of Sacramento police traffic stops involved black drivers. Overall, police stopped the equivalent of 1 out of every 4 black adults annually. By comparison, city police stopped the equivalent of about 1 of every 17 white adults annually.
The reasons are unclear. Black residents say it’s racial profiling by law enforcement, while criminology experts say the numbers alone are inconclusive and on par with traffic stops in other American cities. The Bee analysis found the discrepancy in stops only affected black drivers. Other minorities were not stopped in unexpected numbers.
Police spokesman Officer Matt McPhail said the data analyzed by The Bee was “incomplete or inadequate because it doesn’t take into account all the different factors that led up to whether or not a stop is made.”
McPhail said an evaluation of traffic stop data should include community satisfaction surveys, complaints from residents and where the department deploys officers, among other items. But he said ultimately, stops are made when violations are observed.
“(A)n equipment violation on a vehicle or driving behavior, that is the foundation for why we make enforcement stops,” said McPhail.
Interviews with more than a dozen black Sacramento drivers found that frequent stops made them fearful and distrustful of Sacramento police. They described making significant changes in their daily habits to avoid potential police contact.
They cover tattoos before getting on the road, drive cars they believe won’t draw notice and choose routes where they believe fewer police will patrol. Multiple drivers said they sold cars that they feared were too “expensive” looking for a black person to drive without being noticed. Those with kids counseled them on how to de-escalate situations if stopped.
“I never feel safe driving around here,” said David Brown, a black resident of south Sacramento. “I can see the cops, and I can have my license and my insurance, and I will park my car because I am scared to drive by them – and I am legit.”
The black drivers said they had dozens of “moves” to avoid scrutiny because they believe police use the traffic stops as a pretense to search cars, check for parolees and look for more serious charges. Stops that don’t lead to tickets make them think police are “fishing.”
About 41 percent of stops involving black drivers resulted in a citation or an arrest, compared to 52 percent of stops involving nonblack drivers.
“You could walk every right path … and they still will have you sitting on the curb running all your information,” said Dahir Nasser, a state employee.
But drivers said they also believed their actions were futile. McClinton said the sheer number of stops makes it more likely an infraction will be found. He pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor driving under the influence charge that stemmed from one of his 2009 stops.
“At some point you are going to find something,” McClinton said. “If you are a black man, you need to be on your toes all the time.”
Five black drivers interviewed by The Bee said they had been stopped for the volume of their radio. One said he was stopped for having an air freshener on his rearview mirror. Others said they were pulled over for missing front license plates, broken lights, registration issues or reports that similar cars were suspected of being used in crimes. All reported multiple stops.
While white drivers are most often pulled over for moving violations like speeding, black drivers are more likely to be stopped for registration issues or equipment violations. Registration and license plate violations accounted for 58 percent of stops involving black drivers, compared to 51 percent of stops involving Latino drivers and 42 percent of stops involving white motorists.
“They just pull you over and they find something,” said Ozzie Williams, 27, a south Sacramento resident who said he’s been stopped about six times in the past 2 1/2 years.
The last time Williams was stopped about a year ago, he said it was for holding a cellphone while driving, though Williams said he didn’t have the device in his hand. Williams said the officer told him he wouldn’t receive a ticket if he confessed to the violation.
Williams said he at first refused but then acquiesced. The officer then said he smelled marijuana and pulled Williams out of the car for a sobriety test, he said. He passed and was not cited, but the encounter left him shaken.
“I was really afraid because I had never met that kind of aggression before. He made me say something that wasn’t true,” said Williams.
When the officer left, Williams said, his fear turned to anger.
“I sat there for a moment and just thought, ‘Why?’ ” he said.
Pocket resident Votie Patterson said he’s been pulled over so many times he curtailed his driving.
“I’ve had so many of those incidents, I use Uber,” said Patterson.
Patterson said the last time was in downtown Sacramento in 2013 when he was stopped for not having a front license plate on his black Mercedes CLK55 after leaving a midtown Greek restaurant with his date around midnight. He said that he’s stopped driving the car because he felt he was targeted for a “combination of driving a very nice automobile and being black.”
Black drivers said they paid thousands in fines – or forfeited their vehicles when they couldn’t – for towing and tickets after stops for non-moving violations.
The Bee analysis showed black drivers are also searched at significantly higher rates after being stopped. About 24 percent of traffic stops involving black drivers resulted in searches. By comparison, 21 percent of stops involving Latinos, 12 percent of stops involving Asians and 11 percent of stops involving whites resulted in searches.
Police listed “parole/probation” as the justification in about 57 percent of searches involving black drivers, compared to 42 percent of searches involving others. Statewide, black people comprise 28 percent of parolees, according to the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation – but 7 percent of the state’s population.
Stanford professor Sharad Goel cautioned that the numbers don’t prove discrimination or racial profiling. He said that the Sacramento numbers are “not terribly surprising” and on par with other places.
Police in other Northern California cities also stopped black drivers at a disproportionate rate, according to internal department studies. An Oakland study found that 57 percent of drivers stopped in 2015 were black, while black residents make up 28 percent of the city’s population. A San Jose study found that about 10 percent of drivers stopped between 2013 and 2016 were black, while black residents make up 3 percent of the city’s population. In Berkeley, 15 percent of drivers stopped last year were black, while black residents make up 10 percent of the population.
Goel said while the Sacramento data is “suggestive” of bias in policing, it is not conclusive because “there are a lot of explanations for what is happening,” including higher crime and arrest rates in minority neighborhoods. Black people are arrested at 5 times the rate of nonblacks in Sacramento, according to the state Department of Justice.
Police were slightly less likely to find contraband after searching a car driven by black people than in cars driven by others. About 21 percent of searches involving black drivers resulted in the confiscation of contraband like drugs or weapons. Searches involving white people revealed contraband 24 percent of the time; for Hispanics, it was 23 percent.
Goel said if contraband is found less often during searches of a particular group, it can indicate that police have a lower threshold for searching that group, a possible indicator of bias. Goel did not review the Sacramento data but pioneered the idea of using search data to examine bias in his research of traffic stops in other places and is currently compiling national statistics on the issue.
A recent Bee investigation found that black residents are also ticketed for jaywalking at significantly higher rates than others, with residents in Del Paso Heights receiving most of the citations in 2016.
The Bee obtained the Sacramento police data from the city this week after the Law Enforcement Accountability Directive, an advocacy group, requested the information last year.
McPhail said the department “was aware of the content of the information” provided to The Bee but a third-party analysis would be necessary to draw meaningful conclusions from it. He said the last time the department did a comprehensive analysis of racial bias in traffic stops was in 2008.
That report found that black drivers were stopped and searched more often than white drivers and recommended six changes including greater transparency, an “early warning system” to detect problematic officers and regular analysis of traffic stop data. McPhail said the department had adopted the recommendations.
Betty Williams, president of the Sacramento NAACP, said the impact of excessive stops on communities is generational and feeds tensions between black communities and police.
Her son was stopped last year on Thanksgiving Day with his kids in the back seat. When the children arrived at her house, they wanted their grandmother to know “daddy didn’t do anything wrong,” she said.
“The effect on them when they are in the back seat watching their father get stopped … it’s crazy,” she said. “I’m thinking to myself: The war zone is happening in the back seat. It’s affecting the whole family.”