Driving while Black in Buffalo? You’re over 3x more likely to get stopped by police compared to a white person

This article was originally published in WBFO. Read it here.

Buffalo is a city designed for driving, which means that many people make their way around by car. But some people can move around more freely than others.

If you are driving around Buffalo and you happen to be Black, you are 3.1x more likely to get pulled over by the Buffalo Police Department compared to a white person.

Essentially, there are racial disparities in traffic stops in the city of Buffalo, with Black people being disproportionately pulled over by the BPD.

That’s just a taste of the findings from WBFO’s analysis of traffic stop receipts recorded by the BPD, dating back to June 2020.

A stop receipt is not a traffic ticket, but rather serves as a way to record stops that do not result in a fine or summons. They are designed as a non-punitive measure to improve road safety and increase police transparency.

According to the City of Buffalo’s data portal, “stop receipts are issued at traffic stops where a summons is not issued. Police officers on a stop must inform the driver the reason for the stop and issue either a citation… or a traffic stop receipt.”

Each receipt includes fields for the officers to record details about the encounter, such as the reason for the stop, as well as the location and time it occurred. Officers must also record certain information about the driver, including their race.

The receipts have been in use since June 2020 as part of Mayor Byron Brown’s Buffalo Reform Agenda – a series of executive orders Brown issued in the wake of the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, and the ensuing protests in Buffalo. Speaking at the time, Brown said stop receipts would “provide residents with safer and more transparent interactions with the Buffalo Police Department.”

Not only is their use mandated by Brown’s executive order, but since July 2021, stop receipts have been written into local law in the form of an amendment to the city charter known as the Right to Know Law.

WBFO analyzed stop receipts recorded by the BPD between June 2020 through June 2023. Here’s what else we found:

  1. Despite making up a third of the city’s population, Black people are stopped by the Buffalo Police Department over half of the time.
  2. White people make up 45% of the Buffalo population but are vastly underrepresented in the traffic stop data – comprising just 23% of total recorded stops.
  3. 22% of traffic stop receipts record an “unreported,” “not applicable” or “unknown” entry for race. That means that for almost a quarter of records, Buffalo police officers are not recording the race of the motorist they are stopping as required under the Right to Know Law in the city charter. (Note: these records are included in our totals for this reason. These three types of entries for race will all be referred to as “unknown” for the remainder of this article).
  4. If we give the Buffalo Police Department’s reported stops the benefit of the doubt and assume all unknown records are traffic stops for white people, there would still be a racial disparity. In this hypothetical scenario, 45% of stops would be for white people, bringing the stops in line with the demographics of the white population in the city. However, 55% of the stops would still be for Black people, despite Black people only making up 33% of the population.
  5. Zip codes with majority Black residents have more total traffic stops than those with majority white residents, indicating that areas with more Black residents are being policed differently to areas with more white residents.
  6. The top two zip codes for total stops are 14215 and 14211, which combine for a third of all recorded stops in the City of Buffalo. The racial demographic of 14215 is 71% Black and 16% white. The racial demographic of 14211 is 64% Black and 13% white.
  7. Analyzing recorded stops by council district shows that Fillmore District has the most traffic stops and South District has the least, with Fillmore District having 4x the number of stop receipts issued than South District. Fillmore District’s racial demographic is 40% Black and 40% white, whereas South District’s racial demographic is majority white, with 87% white and 5% Black population.

WBFO shared the findings with Jalonda Hill, co-founder and coordinator of the Fair Fines and Fees Coalition – one of the organizations that advocated for the stop receipts to be implemented in Buffalo. She’s “not surprised at all” by what WBFO shared.

“The whole point of stop receipts was to expose what we already knew was happening to Black drivers,” Hill said. “Driving while Black, right? Black drivers being disproportionately pulled over.”

It is a risk many Black and brown drivers in Buffalo know all too well. James Clarke says the BPD has pulled him over approximately four times in the last three years, and that police searched his vehicle each time.

Clarke, who is Black, says he was last stopped by the BPD in March this year on the lower west side and was followed by police for a while before they pulled him over, leading him to believe cops “made up a reason” to stop him. He did not receive a ticket.

“I felt like I was just being racially profiled, and because I was Black driving probably in the wrong neighborhood where there’s crime or stuff, so I’m not really sure. But I felt like I was being harassed for the wrong reason,” he said.

Given his experiences, it is perhaps not surprising that when asked what he made of WBFO’s findings, Clarke seemed at once resigned and bemused. “Now it’s normal to me,” he said, before adding with a shrug: “We get stopped.”

Clarke’s hunch about stops varying by area is supported by the data, specifically when it comes to zip codes and council districts with a high percentage of Black residents.

Given that Fillmore District has the most total stops of the nine council districts, Fillmore District Councilman, Mitch Nowakowski, says the racial disparities in stops is “concerning.”

“It draws attention to the need to constantly have communication with the police department to talk about what these numbers mean, and why there is a disproportionality rate,” Nowakowski said.

Yet, he added that there is the challenge of “balancing needs” in the district, which includes “high-crime areas.” People often travel to Fillmore District to commit crimes connected with drugs, solicitation, and illegal weapons, according to the councilman. Residents often ask him for more police patrols as a consequence.

But traffic stops are not intended as a pretext to search for random crimes other than the traffic offence for which the individual was stopped. That would be a violation of the Fourth Amendment. Nowakowski says that when he asks police to step up patrols in his district, it is targeted at properties, locations, or corners “with very specific information.”

In light of the findings, does he now trust the police to patrol his district in an equitable manner?

He would certainly like the BPD to explain the numbers.

“I’d like to say, ‘Okay, these numbers don’t lie. They exist. There’s a disparity. That’s concerning. Because it appears to target a race at an exponential rate than white people.’ And I kind of want them to walk me through and walk through constituencies – what does the traffic stop entail?”

The councilman commits to filing WBFO’s findings with the council’s Police Oversight Committee for questions to be put to the BPD on public record.

If that happens, it won’t be the first time the BPD’s top brass has been questioned about the department’s traffic enforcement in connection with race. Depositions have taken place as part of a 2018 class action lawsuit which alleges that the city – via the BPD’s now disbanded traffic unit known as the Strike Force – “targeted” Buffalo’s Black and Latino communities through its vehicle checkpoint program.

The complaint was brought by the National Center for Law and Economic Justice along with the Center for Constitutional Rights on behalf of plaintiffs Black Love Resists in the Rust, and alleges that the roadblocks “served to harvest revenue from poor, Black and Latino residents at grossly disproportionate levels” through ticketing.

It is important to note that since that suit was filed, stop receipts have been introduced to the city, and there has been a significant reduction in fines and fees issued for traffic offences since their implementation.

The average number of traffic tickets issued by the BPD per year between 2017 and 2019 was 40,484 whereas the average number of tickets issued between 2020 and 2022 was 16,358 per year – that’s an 85% drop.

Bear in mind those years were at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic when many people stayed home more and used roads less, and the BPD’s traffic division was disbanded as a result. But signs of a ticketing slowdown persist – approximately 10,500 tickets have been issued by the BPD since the start of 2023.

Anjana Malhotra is a senior attorney at the NCLEJ and is representing the plaintiffs in the 2018 case filed against the City of Buffalo. She says that based on WBFO’s analysis of the traffic stop receipt data, the BPD is violating a list of laws – namely the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution, the Fourth Amendment, and the New York State Constitution.

According to Malhotra, the BPD has also left themselves legally exposed by not properly recording the race of drivers pulled over by officers in almost a quarter of cases in the dataset. Officers must do this under Article 13 of the city charter and the Right to Know Law.

“It is the obligation of the Buffalo Police Department to train all of its officers to do this and to enforce this law on a consistent basis,” Malhotra said. “The City of Buffalo has done a really poor job of training its officers on the essential skills necessary to enforce this law, and has not prioritized it among its police officers.”

For Hill, there’s a solution that could both improve road safety and the freedom of movement for people of color in Buffalo – remove police from traffic enforcement.

She is currently collaborating with the Vera Institute of Justice on a project called Stop the Stops which is working to “end or limit the use of law enforcement stops for low-level issues that do not affect traffic safety,” according to the institute’s website.

Hill says that the first step toward this goal would be for the city to invest in traffic calming measures and infrastructure. Stop the Stops is also developing policies to remove armed police from traffic enforcement and to replace them with unarmed civilian traffic safety officers, but the process will take time.

“Police have been enforcing traffic safety for decades, so to just remove them, that’s irresponsible advocacy,” Hill said.“So obviously we’re working with lawyers, we’re working with people that are experts, people with lived experience, to write a smart policy that makes sense for drivers, that makes sense for city government, that makes sense for residents and everyone.”

The idea is not as pie in the sky as it may sound – several municipalities in the U.S. have already acted to limit police involvement in low-level traffic stops. Chapel Hill police officers in North Carolina are not permitted to stop drivers for “non-moving, non-safety” related issues, such as broken tail-lights, expired registration, and broken windscreens according to the municipality’s policy online.

Malhotra agrees that Buffalo needs to “rethink and reduce” police involvement in traffic stops.

“It is time city officials recognized that officers continue to engage in discriminatory traffic enforcement, no matter what mechanisms the city or the executive have imposed on them to try to curb it.”

In response to this story, Mike DeGeorge, the city’s director of communications and senior advisor to the mayor, released the following statement:

“The City of Buffalo established the Stop Receipt Policy as part of its Social Reform Agenda in 2021. The Stop Receipt Policy was designed to provide motorists with information and clarity of why they were pulled over. Individuals who receive stop receipts are not being ticketed or receiving a summons. The Buffalo Police Department added Police Body Cameras to help ensure transparency involving interactions between officers and citizens. If anyone has an issue regarding a traffic stop, they’re asked to call the Buffalo Police Department and file a complaint.”

WBFO fact-checked the city’s statement and, as explained in the story, elements of the Buffalo Reform Agenda including stop receipts were in fact implemented in June 2020 and written into local law in July 2021.

A note on the data: Data Analyst Alyssa Brouillet created all data visualizations and contributed to the findings section for this story. WBFO analyzed Black and white racial demographics only for this story due to the ability to compare the data in the stop receipts with race population data, which uses the same terms. The traffic stop receipts database can be found at the city’s open data portal. The racial demographic data for the City of Buffalo and its zip codes came from the United States Census Bureau. Racial demographic data by council district came from the Partnership for the Public Good’s council district factsheets, 2020.