Note: The data referenced in this piece can be explored in an interactive graphic at the bottom of the story. The graphic is best viewed on a computer.
BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) – After Buffalo police pulled over Anthony Green for the umpteenth time, he asked the officer: “Why did you just racially profile me like that?”
“I said, ‘You looked at me and you pulled me right over’ and his response was, ‘We get 90% of our arrests from random pullovers,’” said Green, who is a 35-year-old Black man.
Green told News 4 Investigates that the officer’s response confirmed his suspicion.
“I read between the lines and took it as basically we look at y’all, pull y’all over and just guess and hope y’all got something,” Green said. “In other words, he was saying what I said the first time – why are you racially profiling?”
In 2020, against a backdrop of street protests after the murder of George Floyd and a Buffalo police unit fracturing the skull of an elderly activist on the steps of City Hall, Mayor Byron Brown adopted reforms that included officers issuing “stop tickets” or “stop receipts” whenever someone is pulled over by police but not ticketed. The mayor said the purpose of the receipts is to explain the reason for the stops and to document the interactions.
Brown also required police officers to record the race of each person.
“This should end unconstitutional stops and increase officer accountability,” the mayor’s executive order states.
A News 4 Investigates analysis of the stop receipt data found that the disparity in who gets stopped by police persists, four years after a group of minority residents accused city police in a federal civil rights lawsuit of targeting minority neighborhoods with traffic enforcement.
There is also a problem with the data, itself. Despite the requirement, officers failed to record the race in one-quarter of the stops – on more than 1,000 receipts – by marking those as “unknown.”
News 4 Investigates worked with Cornell ILR Buffalo Co-Lab to measure disparity citywide in three different ways. The findings included:
- When the receipts in which the race is unknown were removed, Black people were 2.5 times more likely to be stopped by police in Buffalo than white people, despite making up a smaller share of the city’s total population. (Buffalo is 39% white and 35.6% Black.)
- When racial demographic percentages were used to assign race to the receipts that were marked unknown, Black people were two times more likely to get stopped than whites.
- When all the receipts where the race is unknown are instead assumed to be for whites, the disparity remains, with Blacks 1.2 times more likely to be stopped than whites.
“I think the main issue is that the City of Buffalo, the Buffalo Police Department, has continuously denied allegations of racial discrimination,” said Keisha Williams, an attorney with the Western New York Law Center.
Joseph Gramaglia, the new Buffalo Police commissioner, told News 4 Investigates that community members are not making many complaints about racial bias in traffic enforcement.
“We’re not hearing these, which means they’re not coming forward, which tells me then our traffic stops are better, they’re more professional,” he said. “I think body cameras certainly aid in proving how those traffic stops have gone.”
Missing race data
Gramaglia said all information collected for the stop receipts, including race, is “mandated.”
But there does not appear to be any real effort by department brass to ensure race gets recorded on all the receipts, activists and attorneys said.
Gramaglia said officers are sometimes unable to determine the driver’s race or fear the stop could escalate if they were to ask.
“We’re getting a good response rate at 75%,” Gramaglia said. “Hopefully, that number will increase, but we also don’t want to see those situations escalate.”
News 4 Investigates interviewed six activists and attorneys, who all said the police department could do better by enforcing the mandate. Incomplete data makes it more difficult to determine disparities, they said.
“I don’t know why that it is the case that 25% of [receipts] do not have race information, but it’s obvious that it’s not being enforced,” Williams said. “There is a problem.”
“While they have access to the stop receipts, and while they should be doing it, there is nothing really requiring and demanding that police officers do this and I think that that’s going to require working with the police union and city council to actually get some sort of ordinance passed that actually requires police officers to do this,” Hill said.
Claudia Wilner, director of litigation and advocacy for the National Center for Law and Economic Justice and one of the attorneys suing the city for allegations of discriminatory policing, said the police department does not appear to want to know the full scope of any disparities.
“Because if the city knew the extent of the disparities, then they would have to fix them,” Wilner said. “We know from anecdotal data that we already have, that the disparities are huge, and the city has been avoiding for years trying to really shed a light on what has been going on with police in Black communities in Buffalo.”
Black people getting stopped more
Even with one-quarter of the stop receipts missing the race of the drivers, the conclusion that more Black people are getting stopped citywide is indisputable.
Russell Weaver, the director of research at the Cornell ILR Buffalo Co-Lab, simulated an improbable outcome by assuming all the stop receipts missing the race information went to white drivers.
The disparity did not disappear.
“But still, you have that big gap between 52% of the traffic receipts were issued to persons identifying as Black or African American compared to about 36% of the overall population,” Weaver said. “So, you do see some disparities there, for sure.”
Gramaglia provided News 4 Investigates with a PDF of the raw numbers of the stop receipts by race in each of the five police districts, which he said paints a different picture than what our analysis found.
In general, the PDF showed more white drivers got receipts than Black drivers in police districts covering North and South Buffalo that are in predominantly white neighborhoods. And in most cases, Black drivers got more receipts in police districts that have a larger African American population.
“You have to almost look at them as five independent municipalities, if you will, and the numbers show a different story based on each of the five districts if you look at them individually,” said Gramaglia, who was tapped by the mayor last week to be police commissioner.
But the data does not account for the proportion of each race to their percentages of the population in each district. Put another way, just because more white drivers received receipts than Black drivers does not mean they were handed out equally in that district.
News 4 Investigates and the Cornell ILR Buffalo Co-Lab did run the analysis in each of the five police districts and accounted for the racial composition of each district.
Weaver said viewing the data by police precincts further illuminates the disparities in some cases.
The A District is a perfect example.
The district is bordered to the west by Lake Erie, to the south past the Buffalo Lakeside Commerce Park, to the east covering about half of Kaisertown down to Dorrance Avenue, and to the north at William Street. The neighborhoods are all south of downtown.
Of the 45,000 people who live in the district, 71.3% are white, and 9.8% are Black.
While Gramaglia’s PDF shows white people received more receipts in the A District overall, the percentage was not proportionate to their population. In other words, white people did not receive 71% of stop receipts.
On the other hand, police gave a disproportionate share of stop receipts to Black people in a mostly white police district, Weaver said.
“That’s what makes A district such an extreme example,” Weaver said. “The African American share of population there is relatively small. If traffic stops reflected the district’s demographics, then we might assume about 10% of receipts there, give or take, would be issued to Black drivers, when in fact the number is 34% – more than three times what we might expect based on the population composition.”
Another way to view the data is calculating the rate of receipts per capita and splitting each district up into four smaller subdistricts to spot specific neighborhoods with the most receipts while accounting for the racial demographics.
In doing so, the portion of the A District with the largest minority population (32% Black, 20.4% Hispanic and 41.1% white) had the highest rate of receipts within that district, with 19.5 receipts per 1,000 people. This section is bordered to the north by S. Division Street and to the south by South Park Avenue.
In comparison, the section of the A District with the lowest rate of receipts is bordered to the south by Dorrance Avenue, to the north by Seneca Street, to the west by South Park Avenue and to the east by Cazenovia Park. There, police gave out receipts at a rate of just 7.2 per 1,000 people. This section of the A District is 80.2% white compared to only 5.5% Black.
Gramaglia said police are in those neighborhoods at the behest of residents who demanded more traffic enforcement.
“All five districts are doing traffic enforcement,” Gramaglia said. “They are all stopping cars and that is based on an overwhelming complaint in all five districts of the city from community members on a need for more traffic enforcement.”
Criticisms aimed at police
Allegations of racial profiling against the Buffalo Police Department are not new.
In fact, civil rights groups are suing the city for what they deemed to be “unconstitutional and racially discriminatory” traffic enforcement tactics.
The lawsuit contends the police department targeted minority neighborhoods with checkpoints and gave multiple tickets for driving infractions to motorists who are Black, such as a ticket for each tinted window on a vehicle.
In June 2018, attorneys for Black Love Resists in the Rust filed the federal civil lawsuit on behalf of at least nine minority residents whom they believe police targeted because of their skin color.
A group of activists and attorneys suing the city said the News 4 Investigates analysis and the work done by Weaver confirms what they have been saying for years.
Hill, the founder of Colored Girls Bike Too and coordinator for the Fair Fines and Fees Coalition, has pitched the idea of removing Buffalo police officers from traffic enforcement, which other localities have done in recent years.
Hill was responsible for finding plaintiffs for the Black Love Resists in the Rust lawsuit against the city, and through that experience, she heard many stories of how traffic enforcement seemed to target people of color.
“I think that based on the data, the racial bias, the violence, sometimes the deadly interactions, the extraction that comes from police pushing traffic enforcement, that we make a strong case to also disband and remove police from enforcing traffic safety in the City of Buffalo,” she said.
Anjana Malhotra, a senior attorney for the National Center for Law and Economic Justice, said Buffalo police officers don’t get racial bias training on a regular basis.
“This is precisely why we brought this litigation because the city has not been upholding its duty to ensure that in policing, people are treated equally and fairly and with dignity,” Malhotra said.
Green said Buffalo police officers pulled him over three times in a little over two months beginning in November. Each time, he said the reasons for the stops were his factory solar-tinted windows, which he and his attorney said are legal.
Green said police did not write him any tickets the first time, but the officer also failed to give him a stop receipt.
Less than a week later, police stopped Green again while he was driving to get milk for his daughter. Green, like he did the first time, explained that the car has factory solar tints. This time, Green was ticketed for being an unlicensed driver.
In the summer of 2021, the state passed the Driver’s License Suspension Reform Act, which stopped the practice of suspending licenses for unpaid traffic fines and fees. Green didn’t realize his license was still suspended after the law passed.
In January, he was stopped a third time on W. Ferry Street. This time, the officer said his windows were too dark. When he asked for a supervisor, Green said the officer responded, “I don’t have to call the supervisor.”
“So, after that she took me out of my car, and what she did was place me in her car and took my cell phone and her and her partner proceeded to search my car,” Green said. “I was in her car for about 20 minutes.”
The officer gave Green multiple tickets for tinted windows, which a judge recently dismissed.
His vehicle was towed. Green’s attorney said the search was illegal, but the police department said officers are required to search vehicles whenever they are towed to the impound lot.
As a result, Green no longer drives. He estimates he has paid at least $5,000 in traffic fines and fees since he started driving. He believes the real reason police have pulled him over so much is because he is a Black man. (News 4 learned Wednesday that Green did get his license reinstated).
“It definitely takes a mental effect,” Green said. “It makes you feel limited, like your limited to do certain things. You got this thought in the back of your head like this cop might pull me over and assume I’m doing criminal activity.”
Malhotra said she has clear statistical data showing Black drivers are more likely to be stopped and given multiple tickets for tinted windows and other traffic violations than white people in Buffalo.
“I think Anthony’s experience is really typical,” Malhotra said. “The officer said it – that’s how they get 90% of their arrests. They operate on a presumption that Black and minorities in Buffalo are suspects.”
Gramaglia said the police department’s policies and procedures strictly prohibit officers from pulling anyone over based on their race.
“I’m not going to speak for someone who’s raising a complaint, but those complaints need to come to us,” he said. “If somebody feels that they were stopped based on any number of a category of demographic data and not for probable cause or reasonable suspicion that a crime occurred, then we invite them to bring their complaint forward.”
In addition, he said the police department tickets people for “far more moving violations than we are equipment violations, which is one of the complaints raised.”
“We are writing a single-digit percentage number of equipment violation tickets,” he said.
Hill called News 4 Investigates a few weeks after her interview to provide details about a traffic stop she witnessed in the city.
Hill said she saw the officer hand the man a traffic receipt. News 4 agreed not to identify the driver because he fears retaliation.
The man is no question an African American, said Hill, who provided a photograph of him holding the receipt.
But the officer wrote on the receipt that he was white.
This chart shows traffic receipt data across Buffalo. You can filter the data by police district or click into any sector for more specific info.
Additionally, options are available for the different methods of handling the records that did not list the race of the individual involved. The bottom graph shows the rate of traffic receipts on a per capita basis.
Note: This interactive graphic is best viewed on a computer.