While the following report tries to play it down, it’s clear from the report that the fears that many minorities, and younger people have about contact with police, have a basis in fact. They are more likely to be stopped, searched, experience force during their dealings with police, and be arrested. It’s also signficant that of residents who experienced force, 83% felt it was excessive, and that most uses of force are initiated by the police. It’s time for this to change.
Contacts between Police and the Public
By Matthew R. Durose, Erica L. Smith, and Patrick A. Langan, Ph.D. BJS Statisticians
A Bureau of Justice Statistics Special Report
U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs
An estimated 19% of U. S. residents age 16 or older had a face-to-face contact with a police officer in 2005, a decrease from 21% of residents who had contact with police in 2002. Contact between police and the public was more common among males, whites, and younger residents. Overall, about 9 out of 10 persons who had contact with police in 2005 felt the police acted properly.
Of the 43.5 million persons who had face-to-face contact with police in 2005, 29% had more than one contact. The most common reason for contact with police in both 2002 and 2005 involved a driver in a traffic stop. Other frequent reasons for contact included reporting a crime to police or being involved in a traffic accident.
Nearly 18 million persons — or 41% of all contacts in 2005 indicated that their most recent contact with police was as a driver in a traffic stop. This represented about 8.8% of drivers in the United States, a percentage unchanged from 2002. Stopped drivers reported speeding as the most common reason for being pulled over in 2005. Approximately 86% of stopped drivers felt they were pulled over for a legitimate reason.
In both 2002 and 2005, white, black, and Hispanic drivers were stopped by police at similar rates, while blacks and Hispanics were more likely than whites to be searched by police. About 5% of all stopped drivers were searched by police during a traffic stop. Police found evidence of criminal wrong-doing (such as drugs, illegal weapons, or other evidence of a possible crime) in 11.6% of searches in 2005.
Police issued tickets to more than half of all stopped drivers and arrested about 2.4% of drivers. Male drivers were 3 times more likely than female drivers to be arrested, and black drivers were twice as likely as white drivers to be arrested. Drivers stopped for speeding (71%) or for a seatbelt violation (74%) were more likely to be ticketed than drivers stopped for other reasons, such as an illegal turn or lane change (58%), a record check (34%), or a vehicle defect (32%).
Of the 43.5 million persons who had contact with police in 2005, an estimated 1.6% had force used or threatened against them during their most recent contact, a rate relatively unchanged from 2002 (1.5%). In both 2002 and 2005, blacks and Hispanics experienced police use of force at higher rates than whites. Of persons who had force used against them in 2005, an estimated 83% felt the force was excessive.
These findings are based on the Police-Public Contact Survey (PPCS), which documents contacts between police and the public age 16 or older, including details about the most recent contact during the year.
Face-to-face contacts with police were more common among males, whites, and younger residents
Males (21.1%) were more likely than females (17.2%) to have contact with police in 2005. Whites (20.2%) experienced contact with police officers at higher rates than blacks (16.5%) and Hispanics (15.8%). These differences are consistent with findings from the 2002 PPCS.
Whites made up 71% of the U. S. population age 16 or older but 76% of persons who had a police contact in 2005. Black residents age 16 or older made up about the same percentage of persons having police contact (10%) as their percentage of the U. S. population in 2005 (11%).
In general, younger persons had higher rates of contact with police than older persons. Persons ages 18 to 24 had the highest percentage of contact with police (29.3%) in 2005, while persons 65 or older had the lowest (8.3%). The 2002 survey also found that younger residents were more likely than older residents to have contact with police.
Among persons age 16 or older with at least one face-to-face police contact in 2005, the average age was 39. Half of all residents who had police contact were under 37 (not shown in table).
43.5 million residents had at least one contact with police in 2005
In 2005, 43.5 million persons had at least one contact with police. An estimated 71.5% had just one contact, 17.5% had two contacts, and the remaining 11% had 3 or more contacts with police in 2005. The total number of contacts was 71.1 million, with an average of 1.6 face-to-face contacts per resident.
Teenagers and young adults were twice as likely as older residents to have multiple contacts with police. An estimated 20% of persons age 55 or older who had contact with police reported having more than one contact in 2005 (not shown in table). By comparison, nearly 40% of persons age 16 to 24 who had contact with police indicated that they had multiple contacts.
The most common reason for contact with police was a traffic stop
Survey respondents who had face-to-face contact with police were asked to describe the nature of the contact. Respondents who had more than one contact with police were asked to describe only their most recent contact. In both 2002 and 2005, more than half of the contacts with police were the result of a traffic stop or accident.
The most common reason for contact was as a driver during a traffic stop, accounting for about 4 out of 10 contacts. Traffic accidents accounted for an additional 13% of all contacts in 2002 and 2005. The second most frequent reason for contact with police was to report a crime or problem, accounting for about 1 in every 4 contacts.
Of persons who had contact with police in 2005, 60% indicated their most recent contact was initiated by the police. The remaining 40% were self-initiated (not shown in table).
A majority of residents felt the police acted properly during face-to-face contact
Of persons who had contact with the police in 2005, about 9 in 10 felt the officer or officers behaved properly. Blacks (82.2%) were less likely than whites (91.6%) to feel the police acted properly during a contact. Racial differences in opinion about police behavior were not found across all types of contacts. No differences were found in the percentages of whites and blacks who felt the police behaved properly when helping with a traffic accident or providing assistance, such as giving directions. Blacks were less likely than whites to believe law enforcement acted properly during traffic stops and contacts occurring because police were investigating a crime or suspected the person of wrong-doing.
The likelihood of being stopped by police did not change from 2002 to 2005
An estimated 17.8 million persons age 16 or older indicated that their most recent contact with police in 2005 was as a driver pulled over in a traffic stop. These drivers represented 8.8% of the Nation’s 203 million drivers. Of persons who had more than one contact that year and whose most recent contact was not a traffic stop, an estimated 3 million additional drivers were stopped by police in 2005. The resulting estimated total number of drivers stopped by police at least once in 2005 was 21 million (or about 1 in 10 of the Nation’s drivers).
Overall, the likelihood of being stopped by police in 2002 and 2005 was about the same. In both years, male drivers were pulled over at higher rates than female drivers, and younger drivers were more likely than their older counterparts to be stopped. Also consistent from 2002 to 2005, white, black, and Hispanic drivers were stopped by police at similar rates.
Speeding was the reason for more than half of all traffic stops
When surveyed drivers were asked what reason the officer gave for the traffic stop, the most frequent reason was speeding, cited by more than half (53.3%) of stopped drivers. An additional 10.7% of drivers indicated they were stopped for a record check of some sort, such as a check of driver’s license, insurance coverage, or vehicle registration. Drivers were also stopped for vehicle defects, such as a burned out headlight or a loud muffler (9.6%), violations of stop sign or stop light (7.2%), an illegal turn or lane change (5.7%), and seatbelt violations (4.7%). An estimated 2.2% of stopped drivers indicated they were pulled over during a roadside check for drunk drivers.
Most stopped drivers (86%) felt they had been stopped for a legitimate reason
While the majority of stopped drivers felt police had a legitimate reason for stopping them, driver opinion was not consistent across racial/ethnic categories. White (87.6%) and Hispanic drivers (85.1%) were more likely than black drivers (76.8%) to feel the stop was legitimate.
Driver opinion also varied depending on the reason for the traffic stop. A smaller percentage of black drivers stopped because of a vehicle defect (66.5%) or a record check (72.2%) felt they were stopped for a legitimate reason compared to white drivers pulled over for the same reasons (90.5% and 91.8%, respectively).
Opinions about the legitimacy of the traffic stop were relatively uniform among white, black, and Hispanic drivers when the reason for the stop was a roadside check for drunk drivers, a seatbelt violation, or an illegal turn or lane change.
Police issued tickets to more than half of stopped drivers
As part of the 2005 survey, drivers were asked about the types of actions police took in order to resolve the traffic stop. Drivers were asked whether they were:
- given a verbal warning, the least serious type of police action resulting from a traffic stop
- issued a written warning, a more serious type of action than a verbal warning
- ticketed, the second most serious type of police action
- arrested, the most serious type of action police could take to resolve the traffic stop.
Of the 17.8 million drivers stopped by police in 2005, 17.7% reported that a verbal warning was the most serious action taken by police during the traffic stop. An additional 9.1% indicated that receiving a written warning was the most serious action taken.
Of the four types of action police could take to resolve the traffic stop, being ticketed was the most common, reported by 57.4% of stopped drivers. An estimated 2.4% of drivers reported being arrested. For approximately 13.5% of stopped drivers, no enforcement action was taken, meaning they did not receive a verbal or written warning nor were they ticketed or arrested.
The type of action taken by police varied depending on the reason police gave for making the traffic stop. Drivers stopped for a vehicle defect (14.9%) were more likely than speeders (10.1%) to receive a written warning. Speeders (71.1%) and drivers pulled over for a seatbelt violation (74.3%) had the greatest likelihood of receiving a ticket from police. Drivers stopped during a roadside check for drunk drivers (16.4%) were more likely to be arrested than drivers stopped for other reasons. Overall, the majority of drivers stopped during a roadside check (67.8%) indicated that no enforcement action was taken by police.
Note regarding findings of apparent disparities
The data in this report are from a survey in which U. S. residents were asked about their contacts with police and what police did during those contacts. Among other things, the report documents the percentage of U. S. residents who were pulled over in a traffic stop, and the percentage who were ticketed or searched or arrested. In some cases, such percentages were found to differ between males and females, between older and younger residents, and between the different races. For example, blacks were more likely than whites to be searched during a traffic stop.
However, the apparent disparities documented in this report do not constitute proof that police treat people differently along demographic lines. Any of these disparities might be explained by countless other factors and circumstances that were not taken into account in the analysis.
Police took more serious actions during traffic stops involving males and younger drivers
Male drivers were more likely than female drivers to experience more serious police actions following a traffic stop. Males (3.2%) were nearly 3 times more likely than females (1.1%) to be arrested. Males (59.2%) were also more likely than females (54.4%) to be ticketed.
Police actions taken during a traffic stop were not uniform across racial and ethnic categories. Black drivers (4.5%) were twice as likely as white drivers (2.1%) to be arrested during a traffic stop, while Hispanic drivers (65%) were more likely than white (56.2%) or black (55.8%) drivers to receive a ticket. In addition, whites (9.7%) were more likely than Hispanics (5.9%) to receive a written warning, while whites (18.6%) were more likely than blacks (13.7%) to be verbally warned by police.
Younger drivers experienced more serious types of actions by police than older drivers:
- Drivers in their twenties (4.8%) were more likely than drivers in their thirties (1.9%) and forties (1.6%) to be arrested during a traffic stop.
- Teenage drivers (60.7%) and drivers in their twenties (58.8%) and thirties (60.8%) were more likely than drivers in their fifties (52.4%) and drivers age 60 or older (50.4%) to be ticketed by police during a traffic stop.
More than half of searches were conducted with the consent of the driver
More than half (57.6%) of all searches conducted in 2005 were by consent. Consent searches occurred because either the officer asked permission to perform a search and the driver then granted it, or the driver told the officer he/she could conduct a search without the officer first asking for permission.
The remaining 42.4% of searches occurred without the consent of the driver. Searches conducted without consent may occur because:
- the police officer had not asked permission before conducting the search;
- the officer had asked but the driver refused;
- the search was conducted pursuant to an arrest
About 1 in 10 searches during a traffic stop uncovered evidence of a possible crime
In 11.6% of searches conducted during a traffic stop in 2005, police found drugs, an illegal weapon, open containers of alcohol, or other illegal items. Consent and nonconsent searches turned up evidence of criminal wrong-doing at similar rates.
Rate of police use of force during a traffic stop remained stable from 2002 to 2005
Stopped drivers were asked whether, in their opinion, police had used or threatened to use force against them during the traffic stop. An estimated 0.8% of the 17.8 million persons whose most recent contact with police in 2005 was as a driver in a traffic stop indicated police used or threatened to use force against them (not shown in table). In 2002, the percentage was 1.1%.
Percent of persons experiencing force during a police contact was about the same in 2002 and 2005
All persons who had contact with police, whether as a driver in a traffic stop or for some other reason, were asked if the police officer (s) used or threatened to use physical force against them during the contact. The survey did not define force for the respondent. If persons reported more than one contact that year, they were asked if police used or threatened force against them during just their most recent contact.
An estimated 707, 520 persons age 16 or older had force used against them during their most recent contact with police in 2005. ***In the report “use of force” includes threat of force unless otherwise indicated. *** This estimate is about 1.6% of the 43.5 million people reporting face-to-face police contact during 2005. The percentage of contacts involving police use of force was relatively unchanged from 2002 to 2005.
The likelihood of being searched during a traffic stop was unchanged between 2002 and 2005
In both 2002 and 2005, about 5% of stopped drivers were searched by police during the traffic stop. The 5% includes searches of the vehicle only, the driver only, and both the vehicle and the driver.
In both years, male drivers were more likely than female drivers to be searched by police during a traffic stop.
In 2005 black (9.5%) and Hispanic (8.8%) motorists stopped by police were searched at higher rates than whites (3.6%). The likelihood of experiencing a search did not change for whites, blacks, or Hispanics from 2002 to 2005.
Drivers under the age of 30 (8.4%) had a greater likelihood than drivers age 30 or older (2.7) of being frisked or having their vehicle searched. In 2005 drivers in the two youngest age categories — teenage drivers (9.5%) and drivers in their twenties (8.1%) — were more likely than drivers in their thirties (3.3%), forties (3.3%), and fifties (2.3%) to experience some type of search.
Due to sample size limitations, analysis could not be done on the likelihood of being searched by the reason for the traffic stop and gender, race, and age differences. See Appendix for more information on sample size on the BJS web site at http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/
In the 2005 PPCS all persons were asked if the police used or threatened to use force against them at any time during the year. An estimated 991, 930 persons reported that they experienced force or the threat of force by police at least once in 2005.
Among residents who experienced force, 83% felt it was excessive
Most (82.9%) of the 707, 520 people experiencing force in 2005 felt the force used by police was excessive. Whites (84.3%) involved in force incidents were not more likely than blacks (81.5%) to feel the force was excessive. Among Hispanics who had force used against them, 85.6% felt it was excessive. The differences between estimates for whites, blacks, and Hispanics were not statistically significant.
Overall, 14.8% of persons who experienced force were injured during the incident (not shown in table).
The majority (86.9%) of persons involved in police use of force incidents in 2005 felt the police acted improperly (not shown in table). Of those who felt the police acted improperly, 13.1% said they filed a complaint against the police.
Male, black, and younger residents more likely to experience force
The differences found among gender, race, and age groups who experienced force in 2005 were consistent with the 2002 PPCS. Among the persons who had police contact in 2005, females (1. 0%) were less likely than males (2.2%) to have had contact with police that resulted in force. Males accounted for a larger percentage (72.4%) of contacts involving force compared to their percentage of all contacts (53.6%).
Blacks (4.4%) and Hispanics (2.3%) were more likely than whites (1.2%) to experience use of force during contact with police in 2005. Blacks accounted for 1 out of 10 contacts with police but 1 out of 4 contacts where force was used.
Persons age 16 to 29 (2.8%) who had contact with police were more likely than those over age 29 (1. 0%) to have had force used against them. Persons age 16 to 29 made up a smaller percentage of persons who had a police contact (34.5%) compared to the percentage of persons experiencing force during a contact (60.3%). The median age of those experiencing force was 26.
About 80% of contacts involving force were initiated by police
Persons whose contact was police-initiated (such as a traffic stop) were more likely than those whose contact was not initiated by the police (such as asking police for assistance) to experience police use of force (2.2% versus 0.8%) (not shown in table). Police-initiated contacts were 60.4% of the 43.5 million contacts in 2005, but 81.4% of the 707, 520 contacts involving police use of force.
Persons whom police suspected of criminal wrong-doing or who had contact through a criminal investigation represented a relatively large percentage of the 707, 520 force incidents, as compared to their representation of all persons with contact in 2005. Residents suspected of criminal wrong-doing by police accounted for a percentage of the force incidents (23.9%) that was nearly 9 times higher than their portion of all contacts (2.8%). Persons whose contact occurred because of a criminal investigation accounted for a percentage of force incidents (21.3%), almost 4 times higher than their percentage of all contacts (5.6%).
Over half of police use of force incidents involved physical force
Residents who experienced force were asked to describe the type of force used. Among the estimated 707, 520 persons who reported that the police used force against them:
- 55% indicated the police actually used some type of physical force, such as pushing, pointing a gun, or using chemical spray
- 27.5% reported force was threatened but not actually employed
- 10.1% indicated the officer (s) shouted or cursed at them but did not use or threaten physical force
An estimated 16.8% of persons experiencing force reported that they did something to provoke the officer to use force, such as threatening the police or resisting arrest.
About half of persons who had force used against them were searched by police
In 2005 more than half (54.1%) of those who had force used against them by police were searched either before or after the force occurred. Blacks (53.4%) were not more likely than whites (48.5%) to be searched during contacts that involved force. Hispanics (71.9%) were more likely than whites (48.5%) but not more likely than blacks (53.4%) to be searched during contacts involving force. About 8% of persons who experienced force reported that police found illegal items (such as drugs, an open alcohol container, or a weapon) during the contact (not in a table).
About a third of force incidents resulted in arrest
About 3 in 10 persons who had force used or threatened against them in 2005 were arrested during the incident. Less than half (41.2%) of persons experiencing force were handcuffed during the incident. The higher percentage of persons handcuffed versus arrested during force incidents may be an indication that police use handcuffs to detain people during contact and release them without making an arrest.
The 2005 Police-Public Contact Survey was conducted for the Bureau of Justice Statistics during the last 6 months of 2005 by the U. S. Census Bureau as a supplement to the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS). The NCVS sample consisted of 80, 237 individuals age 16 or older. About 20% of the NCVS sample, or 16, 294 individuals, were excluded from the 2005 PPCS as noninterviews or as proxy interviews.
Noninterviews (14, 757) included respondents not available for the interview, those who refused to participate, and non-English speaking respondents. (Unlike NCVS interviews, PPCS interviews are only conducted in English). The remainder (1, 537) were proxy interviews. A proxy interview may be conducted when a person is unable for physical, mental, or other reasons to participate. BJS staff determined that proxy interviewees would have difficulty describing the details of any contacts between police and the sampled respondent and decided to exclude them.
In total, the PPCS interviewed 63, 943 persons, which represents an 80% response rate among eligible individuals (compared to an overall response rate of 87% for the NCVS).
Among the PPCS interviews, 23, 761 (37%) were conducted in person and 40, 182 (63%) by telephone. The PPCS sample in 2005, after adjustment for nonresponse, was weighted to produce a national estimate of 228, 040, 117 persons age 16 or older.
Respondents in the 2005 Police-Public Contact Survey were directly interviewed to determine how many had a face-to-face contact with police during the previous 12 months. Data on the number and nature of face-to-face contacts with police were based solely on the personal accounts of these PPCS respondents. Official police records on contacts between police and the public were not used.
In comparisons indicated in the text, an explicit or implied difference indicates a test of significance was conducted, and the difference was significant at the . 05 level. Certain differences were not significant at the . 05 level but were significant at the .10 level. The terms “somewhat, ” “some indication” or “slightly” refer to differences significant at the .10 level. The report also indicates that some comparisons were not different, meaning the difference between the two estimates was not significant at either the . 05 or .10 levels.
Standard errors for the percent of drivers stopped by police and the percent of persons who experienced force by demographic characteristics are provided on page 11. See Appendix for other tables available on the BJS web site at
In 1997 the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) introduced new guidelines for the collection and reporting of race and ethnicity data in government surveys. These methodological changes were implemented for all demographic surveys as of January 1, 2003. Individuals after that date were allowed to choose more than one racial category. In prior years individuals were asked to select a single primary race.
In 2005 the racial categories changed from previous Police-Public Contact Surveys to separately identify residents of two or more races. Racial categories presented in this report now consist of the following: white only, black only, other race only (American Indian, Alaska Native, Asian, Native Hawaiian, or other Pacific Islander if only one of these races is given), and two or more races (all persons of any race indicating two or more races). Because about 0.7% of survey respondents identified two or more races, the impact on the rates of police contact for each race is relatively small.
Prior to 2003, individuals were also asked whether they were of Hispanic origin before being asked about their race. In 2005 respondents were asked directly if they were Spanish, Hispanic, or Latino. Individuals who indicated they are of Hispanic origin are categorized under the heading Hispanic or Latino.
Comparing estimates from previous Police-Public Contact Surveys
The Police-Public Contact Survey has been conducted four times: 1996, 1999, 2002, and 2005. In this report, comparisons are exclusively between estimates from the 2002 and the 2005 surveys. See the Appendix for information on the reasons for limiting comparisons to these two years available on the BJS web site at http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/
Other BJS reports on police-public contacts
Each of the following publications is available on the BJS website.
- Police Use of Force: Collection of National Data, November 1997;
- Contacts between Police and the Public: Findings from the 1999 National Survey, February 2001;
- Characteristics of Drivers Stopped by Police, 1999, March 2002;
- Contacts between Police and the Public: Findings from the 2002 National Survey, April 2005;
- Characteristics of Drivers Stopped by Police, 2002, June 2006;
Comparing estimates from previous Police-Public Contact Surveys
There are several reasons for limiting comparisons to findings from the 2002 and 2005 surveys. Changes were made to the data collection instrument following the 1999 survey to reduce the overall response burden to survey participants. These changes affected estimates of the reason for contact with police, in particular the number of drivers stopped. In 1999, respondents were asked whether they had been a driver stopped by police at any time during the previous 12 months. Any respondent who had been pulled over in a traffic stop was then included in the count of the number of drivers stopped by police, regardless of whether the traffic stop was their most recent contact with police.
In 2002 and 2005, the survey was changed so that respondents were asked only about their most recent contact with police during the previous 12 months. Respondents whose most recent face-to-face contact was not a traffic stop, but who had been pulled over by police earlier in the year, were not included in the count of the number of drivers stopped. Due to this change in the survey, the estimated number of drivers stopped by police was smaller in 2002 and 2005 than in 1999. Estimates of the characteristics of drivers stopped by police, such as the percentage of drivers searched or the reasons drivers were stopped, were unaffected by these changes, and remain comparable between 1999, 2002, and 2005.
Following the 1999 survey, the measurement of the number of drivers in the United States was modified and the estimate of the likelihood of being stopped by police in 1999 is not directly comparable to estimates in 2002 and 2005. The denominator used to calculate the likelihood of being stopped by police was “licensed drivers” in 1999, as estimated by the U. S. Department of Transportation’s 1995 Nationwide Personal Transportation Survey. In 2002 and 2005 the denominator was “drivers in the United States, ” as estimated directly from responses to additional questions included in the 2002 and the 2005 Police-Public Contact Surveys. The denominator change was made to account for all persons who drive, licensed and not licensed, to better approximate the number of persons at risk of being stopped by police. Excluded from the new denominator were licensed drivers who indicated that they never drive.
About the authors of this report
The Bureau of Justice Statistics is the statistical agency of the U. S. Department of Justice. Jeffrey L. Sedgwick is the Director.
Matthew R. Durose and Erica L. Smith wrote this report, under the supervision of Patrick A. Langan, Ph. D. Mallory Nobles, BJS intern, provided statistical assistance. Tina Dorsey edited the report, under the supervision of Doris J. James. Jayne Robinson prepared the report for final printing.
Editors Note: Please note this report is not specificially about Clarksville, TN or Montgomery County. It is instead a generally commentary about the system of Public Safety nationwide.