Texas troopers identify many Hispanics as white, casting doubt on racial profiling data

AUSTIN, TX - AUGUST 20:  A Texas State Trooper on August 20, 2011 in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images for Red Bull)

AUSTIN, TX - AUGUST 20: A Texas State Trooper on August 20, 2011 in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images for Red Bull)  (2011 Getty Images)

Texas state troopers pulled over 1.2 million people during traffic stops last year that they identified as white in reports, calling into question the accuracy of state data used to monitor racial profiling.. 

Four of the five most common surnames among those ticketed are Garcia, Martinez, Rodriguez and Hernandez.

KXAN-TV in Austin conducted a database review using millions of records extending back to 2010 that shows troopers across the state inaccurately reported the race of Hispanic drivers.

A state law meant to prevent racial profiling requires authorities to document the race of every driver who is issued a warning or citation, or is arrested.

Texas state Senator Jose Rodriguez, a Democrat, told the station, "We've got to stop playing these kinds of games. I mean, people want to know, Why are Hispanics being singled out? That's a simple question, and you can't go around saying, well, they're white."

The television station's investigation of DPS traffic citation records also found the number of drivers stopped by troopers and recorded as Hispanic has gone up annually since 2010 — from nearly 208,000 to 351,000 last year — while the number of drivers recorded as white declined in the same time period from 1.9 million to about 1.2 million last year.

Among the most common surnames of drivers listed by troopers as white are Garcia, Martinez, Hernandez, Gonzalez and Rodriguez. While a Hispanic name doesn't necessarily mean a person is of Hispanic descent, the review of DPS records shows more than 1.9 million drivers with traditionally Hispanic names were listed as white. Over the same period, approximately 1.6 million were reported as Hispanic.

Sergio Raul Mejia received a traffic citation in Georgetown last May for having his license plate on the dash of his truck. The trooper noted Mejia's race as white on the ticket.

"That's bad," Mejia said. "I'm Hispanic. He was not supposed to put white people."

DPS spokesman Tom Vinger acknowledged that law enforcement databases at the state and national levels have limitations with identifying codes that are used. For instance, their computer systems have five specific codes for race, but that Hispanic is seen as an ethnicity, rather than a race.

"The department will explore options to permit DPS traffic stop data to reflect the race or ethnicity ..." Vinger said in a statement to KXAN.

Ranjana Natarajan, director of the Civil Rights Clinic at the University of Texas School of Law, says the findings reveal that DPS' racial statistics likely are inaccurate.

"It shows that there either seems to be a complete lack of training on the part of DPS officers and other law enforcement officers about how to report people's race or there is deliberate, sort of trying to not follow the policy if they have been trained properly on how to report the race of the drivers whom they stop," Natarajan said.

The racial profiling statute states that officers must report “the person's race or ethnicity, 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.” White and Hispanic are treated as separate categories under the law, in which race and ethnicity are considered the same for statistical purposes.

"The under-representation of Hispanics and over-representation of Caucasians on the contact data counts has a significant impact on the analysis of racial profiling trends," said Alex del Carmen, executive director of the School of Criminology, Criminal Justice and Strategic Studies at Tarleton State University in Fort Worth. "It is imperative that the citation count is accurately recorded and reported by all police officers that interact with the public. This is the only manner in which we can ensure an accurate representation of motor vehicle stops and trends."

Based on reporting by the Associated Press.

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