Why Are Texas Officers Misidentifying Race During Traffic Stops?

An investigation into five years of traffic tickets shows a trend of people with Hispanic names categorized as white on their citations.

By Rhonda FanningNovember 6, 2015 10:00 am

Earlier this year Pastor Gonzalez Sosa was pulled over for speeding in Caldwell County. Dash-cam audio from that traffic stop indicates both drivers spoke in Spanish during the stop.

Sosa was issued a citation, but his race was recorded as white.

A Texas law aimed at preventing racial profiling mandates that officers document a person’s race after an interaction. According to a new investigation by KXAN – the number of individuals incorrectly identified by race might be a little too high to write off as one simple mistake.

KXAN reporter Brian Collister says they looked at nearly 21 million traffic citations issued by the Department of Public Safety since 2010. About a million tickets were recorded as issued to people who are Hispanic, but investigators noticed that people with clearly Hispanic names (Pastor Gonzalez Sosa, for example) were recorded as white.

“We started to try to connect the dots,” Collister says. KXAN found more information on people through booking photos and social media. “What we found were lots and lots of examples of people that were clearly Hispanic that were being put down as white.”

Collister says they were first tipped off about possible race misidentification in court documents from the Austin area that showed the race of Hispanic people as white. Following the death of Sandra Bland in police custody, the team began investigating how DPS police record race during traffic stops.

The news outlet could only get specific information like dash-cam footage for certain traffic stops, Collister says. To examine the problem across all five years of data, they sorted by race and last name.

“The most popular name for a white motorist in Texas over that time period is Smith – no surprise,” Collister says. “The next most popular names, most cited, are Garcia, Hernandez, Rodriguez, Gonzalez.”

It’s possible these drivers self-identify as white, but Collister says the law to prevent racial profiling (Article 2.131 of the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure) requires that officers have to record the person’s race twice, both before and after a citation.

“Every peace officer is required by law to document what they determine as the race of the driver,” he says, “They’re actually supposed to do that twice: one, they’re supposed to note in their data whether they knew the race of the driver prior to the stop and then when they issue the citation or they make an arrest based on a traffic stop, they must record the race.”

“The law is very clear,” he says. Race and ethnicity are meant to be treated the same and it specifically prescribes what options there are to record a person’s race, for which white and Hispanic are separate categories.

So what motivation is behind this? DPS isn’t talking, Collister says. When KXAN reporters asked DPS Director Steve McCraw about their findings,  he mentioned that it’s possible in-car computers don’t have the option to record a person as Hispanic in their electronic filing system.

“He agreed, ‘Yes, you’re absolutely right'” that including the option to mark someone’s race or ethnicity as Hispanic is required by law, Collister says. McCraw told Collister that “even though we have some limitations with our computer system, our officers have been trained to work around that and to document the race that they determine.”

The investigation airs on KXAN at 10 p.m. Friday.