Policy Sciences

, Volume 41, Issue 3, pp 221–243 | Cite as

An analysis of police traffic stops and searches in Kentucky: a mixed methods approach offering heuristic and practical implications

  • Brian N. Williams
  • Michael Stahl


Is race a significant predictor of being searched by the police? Is race a significant predictor of having positive search results during traffic stop? We address these two questions by analyzing traffic stop data (n > 93,000) collected by two state and 24 local police agencies in a single state during the 2001 calendar year. Our findings show that race does correlate with a fruitful traffic stop but not in the manner that may be commonly thought. To supplement and better contextualize our quantitative findings, an exploratory study was then designed that used the focus group interviewing technique with groups of officers from five of the participating agencies to explore their perceptions of (1) traffic stops and searches and (2) public allegations of racial profiling and bias-based policing. The findings from this qualitative phase of the study highlighted the officers’ perceived role as community problem solvers “who profile problems and not people.” In tandem, this mixed-method approach was instrumental in advancing our knowledge of both the patterns and results from related searches, in addition to better contextualizing the underlying perceptions of officers regarding the use of race in “solving” community problems. The results from this combination of methodological approaches offer important heuristic and practical implications.


Racial profiling Traffic stops Bias-based policing Police–community relations 



The authors dedicate this article to the memory of the late Susette M. Talarico—scholar, mentor, and friend. Susette read the initial draft of our manuscript and offered insightful comments and constructive suggestions. We are also grateful to Barry Bozeman, Andrew Whitford, Tony Brown, Ellen Rubin, Paul Speer, Heather Davidson and the anonymous reviewers for their suggestions for improvement.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC. 2008

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Public Administration & PolicyThe University of GeorgiaAthensUSA
  2. 2.Stanford Law SchoolStanford UniversityStanfordUSA

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