Austin Police Officer conducting a traffic stop. Photo by Ricardo B. Brazziell, a staff photojournalist at the Austin American-Statesman

Hispanic Racial Profiling After SB4

Racial profiling by peace officers has been a significant issue for many minority status individuals all throughout American history (Harris). In 2001, the State of Texas decided to address the issue and passed a law that mandated that law enforcement agencies throughout the state that engage in traffic stops must submit racial profiling data to a local government agency. However, the law was amended in 2009 and subsequently required law enforcement agencies to submit their racial profiling data to the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement (TCLOE). This update to the law and other updates more recent have helped provide statistical racial profiling data for researchers that are conducting data analysis regarding racial profiling. Within the past few years in Texas, issues surrounding racial profiling by peace officers have become a hot-button issue because of actions taken by the State Legislature. Some have argued that the actions have increased racial profiling against minority populations, while others have argued that the actions have had no effect at all (Aguilar). This article will examine whether or not there has been an increase in Hispanic racial profiling during traffic stops after Texas Senate Bill 4 from the 85th legislative session became law.

Final Senate vote on whether or not to concur with House amendments to SB 4. The video is from Texas Senate Video Archive.

In 2017, Greg Abbott, the Governor of Texas during the 85th legislative session, signed Senate Bill 4 (SB4) into law. During its time as a bill in the legislature, it was seen as being incredibly controversial because the bill dealt with issues regarding an individual’s immigration status. Specifically, a provision of the bill that was seen as being quite contentious concerned whether peace officers in the State of Texas could prompt an individual for their immigration status while the individual was being detained. This in theory meant that a peace officer could ask if a person was a citizen during a routine traffic stop. Although, Governor Abbott dismissed this claim at the time he signed the bill into law when he stated, “All these comments made about being pulled over and detained are absolutely false” (Samuels). While it is important to have faith in the veracity of the statements put out by the governor, one cannot simply just take him at his word. Instead, there should be a thorough examination of the data surrounding racial profiling during traffic stops so researchers can glean whether or not a law enforcement agency is actually causing a racial profiling issue to exist.

Critics of the SB4 have derided the law because they believe that its passage will ultimately lead to more people of Hispanic descent being pulled over by law enforcement officers. Organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the National Immigration Forum have become staunch critics and opponents of the law. According to an ACLU blog post, the bill “…is about codifying racial profiling into law and putting a target on the backs of people of color across Texas” (Cheng). The National Immigration Forum has also been harsh in its assessment, going so far as to say that “SB 4 tarnishes the reputation of Texas in the eyes of Hispanic and other families and the people who know and care about them” (National Immigration Forum). In fact, even some law enforcement agencies in the State of Texas have expressed some deep reservations regarding the law. In an opinion article, members of the Texas Major Cities Chiefs and members of the Texas Police Chiefs Association wrote that the law will result in “…increased crime against immigrants and in the broader community,” and will “…create a class of silent victims, and eliminate the potential for assistance from immigrants in solving crimes or preventing crime” (Pughes and Acevedo).

There are also some supporters of the bill. Texas State Senator Charles Perry who filed the bill considers it to be a necessity because it protects Texans. In defense of the law, the State Senator stated that the law “…ensures that there is predictability that our laws are applied without prejudice” (Aguilar). Ken Paxton who is the Attorney General of the State of Texas put a statement out while the bill was being debated that said that the bill was constitutionally sound, and he also stated that the law is going to “keep communities secure by requiring state and local law enforcement to cooperate with federal agencies as they take care to faithfully execute the immigration laws of the United States” (Aguilar).

The research that has been conducted following the enactment of the law has been sparse. However, in 2017 the Austin American-Statesman Editorial Board conducted a racial profiling data analysis on Texas DPS traffic stops from the period of 2009–2015 and found that Hispanic drivers were “33 percent more likely to be searched than white drivers” (Austin American-Statesman). Even though this was before the enactment of the law, the data that the Statesman collected does show that Hispanics might be more likely to be targeted during traffic stops.

So, this begs the question: Does SB4 really contribute to an increase in racial profiling? To gain insight into this issue, let us examine racial profiling data from the top 5 major metropolitan area police departments throughout the State of Texas from the preceding 3 years before the law was passed and the succeeding three years following the passage of the law. As seen in Figure 1 and Figure 2, the data shows that there was an increase in the percentage of Hispanic traffic stops immediately following the enactment of the law during a period of three years in all but one of the top 5 metropolitan area police departments. When the data of the 5 departments were aggregated it was found that there was about a .6 percentage point increase. The San Antonio police department was the lone department that did not have an increase. The second question that should be asked is: If there were increases in Hispanic traffic stops percentages in 4 major metropolitan area police departments, were these increases statistically significant? The answer to that question appears to be no. This might be because not enough time has passed since the law was implemented.

Now that we have talked about the results, let’s talk about an accompanying stipulation that might be pertinent to the research that was conducted. According to Lloyd Potter, who is the State Demographer, the Hispanic population is increasing in the State of Texas and it is estimated that the population will exceed the white population in the state by 2022 (Cowan). This fact alone could explain why there were slight increases in the percentages of Hispanic traffic stops in at least 4 of the major metropolitan area police departments.

This issue of racial profiling by peace officers is an issue that should never be taken lightly. It is important to know what law enforcement agencies can do to prevent incidents of racial profiling of minorities from occurring. This is even more true now since SB4 has officially become state law. Researchers should continue to focus on whether this law is having a damaging racial profiling effect on the Hispanic population of the state.

Works Cited

Aguilar, Julian. “Texas Senate approves “anti-sanctuary” legislation, sending bill to House.” The Texas Tribune. The Texas Tribune, 07 February 2017. Web. 09 Apr. 2021.

Cheng, Amrit. “The Fight to Kill Texas’ Anti-Immigrant Law SB4 Is Not Over, but We Have the Constitution on Our Side.” American Civil Liberties Union. American Civil Liberties Union, 21 September 2017. Web. 09 Apr. 2021.

Cowan, Jill. “When will Latinos outnumber whites in Texas? Experts have a new prediction.” Dallas News. The Dallas Morning News, 21 June 2018. Web. 09 Apr. 2021.

Editorial Board. “Public needs data to know if SB 4 increases racial profiling.” Statesman. The Austin American-Statesman, 26 May 2017. Web. 09 Apr. 2021.

Harris, David. “Racial Profiling: Past, Present, and Future?” American Bar Association. American Bar Association, 21 January 2020. Web. 09 Apr. 2021.

National Immigration Forum. “5 Things to Know About Texas’ SB 4.” National Immigration Forum. National Immigration Forum, 05 May 2017. Web. 09 Apr. 2021.

Pughes, David, and Art Acevedo. “Texas police chiefs: Do not burden local officers with federal immigration enforcement.” Dallas News. The Dallas Morning News, 28 April 2017 Web. 09 Apr. 2021.

Samuels, Alex. “Gov. Greg Abbott: “Sanctuary” law won’t open the door for racial profiling.”

The Texas Tribune. The Texas Tribune, 16 May 2017. Web. 09 Apr. 2021.