Law enforcement in Nebraska's two biggest cities stopped a disproportionately large number of black motorists last year when compared to how many black residents live in those areas, according to data from the Nebraska Commission on Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice.
The commission found that 21.6 percent of drivers stopped by Omaha police were black, while they account for just 12.2 percent of the city's adult population. In Lincoln, 7.7 percent of motorists stopped were black; they represent 3.3 percent of the adult population.
Blacks, Hispanics and Natives in both cities also were searched more often than the general population, according to state data.
Statewide, the breakdown of traffic stops by race is roughly in line with Nebraska's demographic makeup based on the latest census data, Crime Commission Executive Director Michael Behm said Tuesday. He cautioned that the apparent disparities in Omaha and Lincoln could be caused by factors other than race.
Nebraska has required law enforcement agencies to collect and report profiling data since 2001, when the state banned racial profiling. The commission's annual report offers a snapshot of the traffic stops, but it doesn't analyze the statistics.
Behm said the commission lacked the resources and authority to examine why any disparities existed. For instance, the report counts the number of Hispanics stopped but does not say how many were stopped for speeding or other traffic violations. The races reported also are based on how drivers appear to an officer.
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"There are some inherent limits to our data," Behm said. "In no way can we track individual cases to get to the granular level of what's happening."
The commission's annual report said law enforcement agencies reported 515,390 traffic stops statewide in 2011, more than two-thirds of them initiated by the Nebraska State Patrol or agencies from the Lincoln and Omaha areas.
The Crime Commission received seven reports of alleged racial profiling last year against three agencies -- the Nebraska State Patrol, Lincoln police and the Douglas County Sheriff's Office -- but officers in all of the cases were exonerated, the report says. Behm said the number of reported racial-profiling claims was down last year from 17 in 2010 and 32 in 2009.
The report found that the patrol conducted proportionally fewer searches than the average law enforcement agency, but it said troopers searched nearly 3 percent of Native American drivers stopped, compared with the less than 1 percent of all motorists. The Douglas County Sheriff's Office and Lincoln police searched blacks, Hispanics and Natives more often than they did drivers in general, according to the report. Omaha police searched Natives three times as often as drivers in general.
"We cannot say definitively whether there is or is not racial bias in traffic stops, we can only point to seeming disproportionality," the report says. "In other words, it is not difficult to measure whether there is disparity between racial/ethnic groups in stops made by police; the difficulty comes in identifying the causes for the disparity and whether or not it is racially biased."