BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) – Most law enforcement agencies in New York, including the Buffalo Police Department, do not consistently collect the race of drivers ticketed by officers, if they collect it at all.
Buffalo Police Commissioner Joseph Gramaglia told News 4 Investigates that the state would have to mandate the collection of race for traffic tickets or Central Police Services would have to contact the state to begin tracking race.
“It’s nowhere to be found on the traffic summons,” Gramaglia said. “There is not a box for that. It’s a state traffic ticket, it’s not a City of Buffalo ticket.”
However, New York State Police use the same database system as Buffalo, and the agency for years has collected race of the drivers ticketed for traffic violations.
Turns out, Buffalo police can, too. And apparently, the police commissioner was unaware that it can be done.
News 4 Investigates has learned that the Buffalo Police Department, and 26 other law enforcement agencies that use the same TraCS database, have the capability to record race on their internal records for traffic tickets.
In fact, some Buffalo police officers are actively doing it, but not consistently.
“Without doubt the Buffalo Police Department right now with current technology that they already have could record the race of the people to whom they are giving traffic tickets,” said Claudia Wilner, director of litigation and advocacy at the National Center for Law and Economic Justice.
Wilner is part of a team of attorneys and researchers suing the City of Buffalo in federal court on behalf of at least nine minority residents who accused city police of targeting their neighborhoods with traffic enforcement checkpoints, among other things.
She said Buffalo cops recorded the race of the drivers in about 20% to 25% of the tickets they write, on average, according to data through 2019 that Wilner’s team obtained for the lawsuit.
And News 4 Investigates discovered that so far this year, Buffalo officers have recorded the race of drivers even more often that in past years.
Erie County Central Police Services data from January through April of this year shows that Buffalo police officers recorded the race of drivers on 51% of the tickets in TraCS. That’s 2,680 of the 5,215 tickets officers have written so far through April.
Yet, when we questioned Gramaglia again three weeks ago after a Police Oversight Committee meeting in City Hall, he seemed to be unaware that officers have been recording the race on some tickets in their internal database.
“It is not on our traffic summons,” Gramaglia said. “If there’s a way to do that, I’ll have to look into it and find out.”
Gramaglia did not respond to inquiries from News 4 Investigates on whether he followed through.
Recording race of ticketed drivers is not mandated by any policy and unlike other states, the New York legislature has failed to pass any legislation to require race tracking – but not for a lack of trying.
At least 23 states have passed rules or legislation that require law enforcement agencies to collect demographic information, such as race, of motorists to determine the pervasiveness of racial profiling, allegations that are common to many law enforcement agencies across the country.
New York legislators have attempted to pass similar legislation, said Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes, D-Buffalo, but it has stalled each time in the senate.
Regardless, Peoples-Stokes told News 4 Investigates that she does not believe law enforcement agencies, including Buffalo, need state permission to record race.
“To suggest that you can’t collect data is the part that’s untrue in my opinion,” Peoples-Stokes said.
Racial profiling in traffic tickets?
In March, News 4 Investigates and the Cornell ILR Buffalo Co-Lab analyzed stop receipt data and found disparities in the number of Black people stopped versus the number of white people. Stop receipts are similar to traffic tickets, but carry no fine and do not require any court appearances. In other words, it’s basically a paper warning.
In Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown’s police reform package in 2020, he included a stop receipt program that requires officers to give people receipts to explain the reason for the stops and to document the interactions. He mandated that race also be recorded on the receipt.
But our analysis found that in about a quarter of the stop receipt data, officers failed to include the race of the person.
To determine if there were disparities in who got stopped and given receipts, the analysis included three different simulations of the data.
In one analysis, we removed all stop receipts that did not record the race of the motorists and analyzed the rest to estimate the racial disparities.
The second analysis used racial demographic percentages of the neighborhoods where people got stopped to assign the race to those receipts missing that data.
The third analysis assumed an improbable outcome that all receipts that did not include the race had actually gone to white people.
Disparities existed under each simulation.
In the first two simulations, Blacks were between 2 to 2.5 times more likely than white people to be stopped by police and given a stop receipt. In addition, similar disparities were discovered in some police districts that are predominately white.
When News 4 Investigates set out to determine if racial disparities existed in the police department’s traffic ticket program, we found far more tickets missing the race data than with the stop receipts.
The analysis of Buffalo traffic ticket data from 2019 through April of this year found that officers failed to record the race for 43% of the tickets. That is more than 31,000 tickets.
For the roughly 40,000 tickets that included race of the drivers, our analysis found that Black residents got more than four-times more traffic tickets than their white counterparts.
During an interview in February, Gramaglia, the commissioner of the Buffalo Police Department, said the only reason that race is recorded in any of the traffic ticket data is because the person had some form of prior contact with the police department where the name got recorded into police records. That could be in the form of an arrest, a complaint, or a witness of a crime, but that information comes from a different database called CHARMS, Gramaglia said.
Gramaglia said race is not recorded on state licenses or at the Department of Motor Vehicles applications, and there is no field on the uniform state traffic ticket to add the race of the drivers.
“When the migration occurred many years ago to the computerized system, again, there is no box on the traffic ticket to put that data,” Gramaglia said. “So, there’s nowhere to collect it.”
But others disagreed with the police commissioner.
Anecdotal data shows ‘disparities are huge’
The computerized system, called TraCS, does allow police agencies to add race to internal traffic tickets, but it will not appear on the paper ticket given to drivers.
Through a Freedom of Information law request, Erie County Central Police Services provided ticket data for the Buffalo Police Department and several other agencies. The database includes a drop-down box labeled as “Select the defendant’s race” with six choices.
An empty, unlabeled box appears on the internal ticket, where the race of the motorist gets recorded.
But in February, Gramaglia seemed to not believe it was possible.
“I think ultimately, the state would have to start collecting that data when you get your driver’s license or your permit and make that one of the questions,” Gramaglia said. “You have your height on there. You have your eye color. Is the state going to start collecting racial data?”
Wilner, who is part of a team of attorneys and experts suing the City of Buffalo and the police department in a federal civil rights lawsuit, said the police department will not collect the race data for tickets “because if the city knew the extent of the disparities, then they would have to fix them.”
The lawsuit was filed about four years ago, after a group of minority residents accused city police of targeting their neighborhoods with traffic enforcement checkpoints.
“We know from the anecdotal data that we already have that the disparities are huge,” Wilner said about traffic ticket data in Buffalo. “And the city has been avoiding for years trying to really shed a light on what has been going on with policing in Black communities in Buffalo.”
Anjana Malhotra, senior attorney for the National Center for Law and Economic Justice, is also part of the team suing the city. She said there is an unchecked problem of discrimination within the police force that has festered without any meaningful intervention by city leaders or police brass.
“This is precisely why we brought this litigation because the city has not been upholding its duty to ensure that in policing, that people are treated equally and fairly and with dignity,” Malhotra said.
As for the state moving forward with legislation to mandate law enforcement agencies collect race data, Peoples-Stokes said Buffalo, and other agencies, don’t need legislative action.
“If you want to collect the information, you can find a way to do that without the state giving you authority to do so,” Peoples-Stokes said.
Luke Moretti is an award-winning investigative reporter who has been part of the News 4 team since 2002. See more of his work here.