MSU researchers help shape change in state law enforcement to stop racial disparities

February 3, 2022 - JJ Thomas

A team of researchers from Michigan State University were commissioned by the Michigan State Police (MSP) to conduct an independent study analyzing data from traffic stops initiated by State Troopers in 2020. The research team consisted of Criminal Justice Associate Professor Dr. Scott Wolfe and two Criminal Justice Doctoral Students, Travis Carter and Jed Knode. Their findings concluded that racial and ethnic disparities were present and consistent across nearly all Michigan counties in the 2020 traffic stop data. 

The study concluded that based on their representation in the population, African Americans were significantly more likely to be involved in a traffic stop, whereas Hispanic and Asian drivers were less likely to be involved in a traffic stop. Additionally, African American drivers and Hispanic drivers were more likely than white drivers to be searched or arrested after traffic stops. Conversely, Asian drivers were significantly less likely to be searched or arrested compared to white drivers, but they were more likely to receive a citation.

The study was the first of its kind for MSP and provides a unique opportunity for ongoing collaboration between the researchers and law enforcement agencies. After the research was shared, the Michigan State Police began development of a 5-point plan to address the disparities discovered in the study. According to a press release from the Michigan State Police, the plan includes:

  • Hiring an independent consulting firm to review MSP policies with an eye toward making recommendations for systemic changes that will address racial disparities

  • Launching a statewide listening and engagement effort, in partnership with the Bridges to B.L.U.E. Citizen Advisory Council, in which MSP leadership will engage in open and honest conversation with leaders from communities of color, surfacing problems and finding solutions together

  • Making more data available to MSP troopers through a dashboard that will provide real-time traffic stop data so they can learn about and adjust their actions

  • Ramping up educational opportunities for troopers and recruits through the creation of the department’s Professional Development Bureau. This new bureau will provide training and development for enforcement members on familiar topics, as well as on new and emerging topics including mental health, wellness, de-escalation, cultural competency, decision-making, implicit bias and communication skills

  • Issuing body worn cameras to all enforcement members who could have enforcement contact with Michigan residents and visitors

Ultimately, the research team hopes that their findings will encourage and increase positive engagement between Michiganders and the State Police. Knode notes that “people are sensitive to the way they are treated by those in power” so taking the first steps to “examine and better understand the reasons for existing disparities opens the door for meaningful future policy change.”