Seat belts -- click it, or ticket, right? But when a police officer is pulling you over for not putting safety first in the driver's seat, is it a race-based call?
Recently, the Broward Public Defender launched a complaint at the Fort Lauderdale Police Department. Howard Finkelstein is alleging African-Americans are being disproportionately targeted by the police force once again -- a similar thread the office says it's uncovered before in different areas. This time, Finkelstein's investigators dug into the seat belt citations and found more African-Americans have been handed tickets than whites.
Before 2009, a seat belt violation was considered a "secondary offense" in Florida, meaning officers couldn't cite that as the main reason for a traffic stop. But that year, the Legislature tweaked the law to make seat belt citations "primary offenses"; as part of the new statute, police officers were required to note the "ethnicity of the violator" and report those stats to the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles. The idea was that the reporting requirement would cut off any race-based police patterns.
But earlier this year, investigators from the Broward Public Defender's Office began combing through the citations, looking to see who exactly was being given the tickets.
On February 18, Finkelstein shot off a letter to Fort Lauderdale Police Chief Frank Adderley with the results.
"Despite the fact that only 31 percent of Fort Lauderdale's population is black, more than 65 percent of all seat belt violations were issued to black citizens in 2010," Finkelstein wrote. "Approximately 70 percent of all seat belt violations were issued to black citizens in 2011 and 2012."
This is familiar ground for the department and the Public Defender's Office. Last year, Finkelstein's office reviewed the number of citations given out by Fort Lauderdale to bicycle riders for not having their two-wheelers registered with the city. As a follow-up New Times investigation indicated, of the 460 citations handed out since 2010, 86 percent of violators of the bike ordinance were black.
Grouped together -- the seat belt offenses, the bike citation numbers, and the office's past examination at the disproportionate number of blacks ticketed for walking offenses -- these reviews spell out a pattern, Finkelstein said.
"These statistics establish racial profiling by your department. You must take immediate action to remedy this discriminatory practice," the public defender wrote. "Black citizens should be able to walk, bike and drive through Fort Lauderdale without fear of being stopped simply because of their race."
When asked about Finkelstein's charges, the Fort Lauderdale PD's DeAnna Greenlaw countered in a statement to New Times that the assertion is based on a narrow focus.
"The conclusion that the Fort Lauderdale Police Department engaged in bias based traffic enforcement was based on seat belt violations only, and when overall traffic citations for the same time periods are examined, the breakdown is nearly 50/50 every year."
But that 50/50 split is noteworthy considering only 31 percent of Fort Lauderdale is African-American -- a fact Finkelstein also pointed out in his letter to the chief.