Over-Policing, License Suspensions Cause Chain Reaction in Black and Latino Communities

In cities without strong public transit, a car is essential for getting to work, shopping for groceries, and transporting children to child care. Research shows that having access to a vehicle increases welfare recipients’ likelihood of getting and keeping jobs.

Earlier this month, CLASP released a brief discussing how public policies that limit access to driving—including driver’s license suspensions and denying SNAP or TANF eligibility based on car ownership—hurt low-income people.

Suspending a driver’s license makes sense when someone drives recklessly. However, most suspensions are due to non-driving offenses, such as failing to pay parking tickets or being behind on child support payments. These policies disproportionately harm low-income people; a person who is financially able to pay those fines would simply do so in order to avoid having their license suspended.

Despite having similar driving patterns to their peers, Blacks and Latinos experience suspensions more frequently. One reason is “over-policing,” where police actively patrol a given community and stop, ticket, and charge residents at unusually high rates. An example of this is Philando Castile, an African American male who was carrying a registered firearm when he was pulled over and shot by a police officer who perceived the gun as a threat. Records show that Castile had been pulled over at least 46 times in the past 14 years, constantly receiving traffic tickets, court fines, and license suspensions. Out of all the times he was stopped, only six instances can be attributed to outwardly observable infractions, such as speeding or having a broken muffler. More than half the charges were dropped without prosecution. This raises the question of whether the stops were warranted or whether Castile was racially profiled and over-policed. Oftentimes, these police actions are not driven by individual racist attitudes; rather, they’re a result of institutionalized practice.

Over-policing is particularly problematic in low-income communities, because residents have less financial means to pay tickets, fines, and attorney fees as well as less flexibility to take time off work to appear in court. This leads to their licenses being suspended. And after they’ve been fined and had their licenses suspended once, many low-income people become trapped in a cycle, experiencing these hardships repeatedly. Further, the frequent, highly intense interactions that over-policing generates between officers and minority and low-income communities can have fatal consequences, as in the case of Philando Castile.

To address these issues, we need to develop policies that reduce suspensions for non-driving offenses. We also need to address the underlying problem of over-policing. By stopping people in some communities at inequitable rates, resulting in suspended licenses, we’re preventing people from getting and keeping jobs and pushing them into debt. Moreover, over-policing can be a matter of life and death. Police killings in recent years, including Philando Castile’s death during a traffic stop, demonstrate the chain reaction of these destructive policies.