How a journalist caught the cops whitewashing their ticketing records

When KXAN investigative reporter Brian Collister reviewed 16 million Texas Department of Public Safety issued traffic citations last year, he uncovered that state troopers routinely ticketed Hispanic drivers but reported to the state that the drivers were White.

More surprising, the TV station discovered that four of the top five names listed as "White" on Texas traffic citations sound Hispanic or Latino.

The investigation, titled "Racial Profiling Whitewash," began in the aftermath of the Sandra Bland case, in which a Black woman was pulled over for a routine traffic stop that ended in a violent confrontation. She was arrested, and police found her hanged to death in her jail cell three days later.

The next month, state officials released a trove of documents that appeared to show the arresting officer in the Bland case stopped the same proportion of African American and White drivers. But an investigation by KXAN into five years' worth of traffic stop data and revealed that state troopers don't always accurately report race and ethnicity.

State records showed that traffic stops involving White drivers were on the decline, the station found. Meanwhile non-White — especially Hispanic — drivers were being stopped much more often. Then, a more surprising story emerged: Cops were ticketing non-White drivers but listing them as White.

"We just did a truth test," Collister told Poynter. "We started with a five-year dataset with 16 million citations. The first thing we did was — sorted the last name column A-Z. We went to Gonzalez, Mendoza, Garcia, and we saw they all were showing up as White."

The station double-checked the data, pulling paper citations to be certain it was accurate. They even posted the actual citations online so viewers could see the proof. During the investigation, they tracked down some of the people on the citations to ask if they were White. Some of the people they spoke with couldn't believe anybody could mistake them as White. More than that, the police officers who pulled them over never asked about their ethnicity, they said.

"By the time we got done, we had tracked down 40 or 50 people that we contacted either virtually or face-to-face," Collister said. "It became clear that this was a trend, not a mistake. The police were listing Hispanic drivers as White. But we did not find a single case where they mistakenly listed a White person as something other than White. Not one."

The station built an online mosaic of 25 people whom troopers listed as White.

From KXAN
From KXAN

For further proof, KXAN asked for dashcam video from some of the stops and found video evidence of misidentification. In one instance, Pastor Gonzalez Sosa was pulled over for speeding. According to the story, the video shows Sosa speaking Spanish to the trooper, telling him he's from Mexico. "But the Hispanic trooper, who also speaks Spanish, documented Sosa's race as White on the citation."

In another case, the station played dashcam video of a trooper who speaks Spanish with a driver he stopped. The driver tells the cop he is on his way to Mexico to attend a family funeral. The officer lists the driver, Jose Ignacio Gutierrez, as White.

The station reports that Texas law requires police to determine and document the race of every person they stop. The law is meant to curb racial profiling. The law says the officer should list the race "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." In other words, troopers have the ultimate authority to judge the race of the person they just stopped.

The law treats race and ethnicity the same, even though they aren't. Generally, race is a category that describes physical qualities and/or ancestry. Ethnicity reflects membership in an ethnic or cultural group including language, customs and beliefs. For that reason a person may be of the Caucasian race but have Hispanic ethnicity.

Texas lawmakers wanted to know if police were targeting Hispanic drivers but covering for their actions by listing the drivers as White. At first, the state said KXAN's reports were wrong. But, after the stories aired, lawmakers hauled Steven McCraw, the director of the Texas Department of Public Safety into a hearing to explain how cops were doing their jobs. He ultimately told Collister, “You were right and we were wrong.”

Reacting to KXAN's stories, the state now tells troopers to do their best to identify a person's race and to tell the driver to change the designation on the ticket before they pay it.

Thirty-two other states require officers to list the race of the people they stop, Collister said. Journalists in those states should find out how police are doing that part of their jobs, he said. There may be reason to distrust the data that comes from those reports if people don't ask a person's race and ethnicity to give the person the opportunity to correct an officer's assumptions.

Many journalism organizations have recognized KXAN's efforts with high praise. The "Whitewash" project won the Texas Headliner Foundation Award, awards from RTDNA and the Texas Broadcasters Association. Earlier this month, it won a national medal from Investigative Reporters and Editors in a contest I helped judge.

Experience has taught Collister that problems in one place often happen elsewhere until somebody fixes an entire system, he said. He came up with this story because he'd done a similar investigation on a smaller scale in San Antonio.

The lesson from that investigation? When officials make a claim, it's the journalists' job to "go out and see if it is accurate. That's what we did."

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    Al Tompkins

    Al Tompkins is The Poynter Institute’s senior faculty for broadcasting and online. He has taught thousands of journalists, journalism students and educators in newsrooms around the world.

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