The share of Hispanics receiving traffic citations from state police has doubled in the last five years, even as the total number of tickets written and total number issued to whites have dropped significantly, according to Texas Department of Public Safety data on non-commercial drivers.
The percentage of tickets issued to Hispanics by state troopers has increased in all but nine Texas counties since 2009, a Texas Tribune analysis of DPS data found. DPS officials are unable to provide an explanation for the dramatic shift, raising questions among some lawmakers about the need for increased oversight of DPS’ operations.
The percentage of tickets issued to Hispanic motorists increased from 10.5 percent of total citations in 2009 to 21.8 percent in 2014. Meanwhile, the share of white motorists cited by DPS dropped from 71.1 percent to 58.8 percent.
Overall, the total number of tickets issued annually by DPS has decreased in the last five years, dropping from 974,560 in 2009 to 687,912 in 2014. A decrease in tickets issued to white drivers — down from 692,796 in 2009 to 404,571 in 2014 — accounted for a large portion of that drop.
Meanwhile, the number of tickets issued to Hispanics increased from 102,801 in 2009 to 149,868 in 2014.
The share of black drivers ticketed by DPS remained relatively steady, increasing from 10.6 percent to 11.3 percent, but the raw number of citations to black drivers dropped from 103,379 tickets in 2009 to 77,967 tickets in 2014.
DPS spokesman Tom Vinger said “it would be almost impossible to specifically determine” what drove the demographic changes.
“One possible factor is changes in the population makeup,” Vinger said. “Another possible factor is the increase in resources allocated for border operations over the last several years, including the most recent border surge that began in June 2014, in areas with a large percentage of Hispanic population.”
But Hispanics’ share of the Texas population has not changed much in recent years. It grew from 36.9 percent of the population in 2009 to 38.6 percent in 2014, according to census data.
And while some border counties did see the biggest percentage increase in Hispanics ticketed by DPS, the growth was not limited to the region.
In the Panhandle region, tickets issued to Hispanic motorists by DPS in Lubbock County increased from 6.1 percent of all citations in 2009 to 26 percent in 2014. Meanwhile, the share of whites cited by DPS in the county dropped from about 80 percent to 60.6 percent.
In Harris County, home to Houston, the percentage of citations given to Hispanics by DPS increased from 9.9 percent in 2009 to 21.7 percent in 2014. During that time period, the percentage of citations issued to whites dropped from 49.6 percent to 38.4 percent.
State demographer Lloyd Potter said demographic or behavioral changes among the Hispanic and white populations could have contributed to the shift in citations, but he added that it seemed unlikely that those changes alone would be “substantial enough to cause the level of change observed in the state and many of the counties over this short period.”
“When things change rapidly, compared to the past, there usually is something driving that sudden shift,” Potter said. “In this case it could be any number of things, but is likely at least in part related to something happening with the policies or practices associated with issuing warnings and citations.”
The Tribune asked DPS several times whether citation forms or the way data was collected by the agency changed during the five years for which data was examined, but the agency did not provide an answer.
Instead, Vinger noted that DPS troopers cite more white drivers overall and that the percentage of cited drivers who were Hispanics is lower than the Hispanic percentage of the state’s population.
Though the rate of citations issued to Hispanics is trending toward their overall share of the population, the geographic variation in how much Hispanic citations increased in each county “raises questions about why the sudden shift” in citations is not consistent across counties, Potter added.
The shifts in DPS ticketing come at a time when the agency’s practices have come under scrutiny following the July 13 death of Sandra Bland inside the Waller County Jail. Bland died three days after she was pulled over by a DPS trooper for an improper lane change. Her death, ruled a suicide by the Harris County medical examiner, is still under investigation by the Waller County District Attorney's office.
State Rep. Garnet Coleman, chair of the House Committee on County Affairs which has taken up the issue since Bland’s death, said he was worried about the rising number of Hispanics being ticketed.
But the Houston Democrat is also concerned about what DPS data does not show: the number of all traffic stops DPS makes. The agency only reports the number of motorist stops that result in a citation or warning.
"It is standard agency practice to issue a citation or warning during a traffic stop, and while there may be cases where this does not happen, it would be uncommon," Vinger, the DPS spokesman, said.
But Coleman and lawmakers across the nation have criticized stops for investigatory reasons — not traffic infractions — known as "pretext" stops as problematic. That DPS does not keep track of all traffic stops it makes is even more worrisome, said Coleman, who plans to author a bill in the next legislative session requiring DPS to count all traffic stops.
"I'm going to have a bill to do so or get rid of [pretext stops] all together," Coleman said, adding he would like to know more about what is driving Hispanic ticketing. Coleman said he suspects that if pretext stops are being conducted and not recorded, it could be pushing up citations for all minorities.
House Republicans on the County Affairs committee did not respond to requests for comment or were unavailable for comment on the DPS data.
Vinger said the agency would “vigorously reject any assertion” that the citation figures indicate racial profiling by state troopers.
“Racial profiling is illegal, inconsistent with the principles and policies of the Texas Department of Public Safety, and an indefensible public protection strategy,” Vinger said. “Furthermore, there is no evidence that DPS engages in racial profiling.”
But Democratic state Sen. José Rodríguez said he's concerned that DPS could not provide an explanation for the dramatic increase in Hispanics ticketed during a time period in which the agency has grown and received millions of dollars in additional state funding.
“There needs to be accountability for these kinds of dramatic increases in traffic tickets for Hispanics, and I think we deserve some answers,” Rodríguez said, adding he’d like to see increased oversight of DPS’ operations considering the additional responsibilities state troopers have taken on as part of their increased presence at the border.
Though a change in data collection could be behind the shift in DPS ticketing, the rise in Hispanic ticketing is "worthy of further investigation," said Greg Ridgeway, an associate professor of criminology and statistics at the University of Pennsylvania.
“We don’t know whether this change has critical implications,” Ridgeway said. “If it is just a sign of more accurate data collection and reporting, then the change is a good thing. If it signals a statewide change in how law enforcement operates in Texas, than that is critical for policy makers and citizens to understand immediately.”