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‘An excuse to racially profile’: How Florida trains police on bias

A course designed to teach officers about discrimination in traffic stops instead has significant flaws, eight experts told the Times.
A screenshot, taken by a Tampa Bay Times reporter, shows a slide from Florida's discriminatory traffic stops training.
A screenshot, taken by a Tampa Bay Times reporter, shows a slide from Florida's discriminatory traffic stops training. [ Florida Department of Law Enforcement ]
Published Sep. 8|Updated Sep. 8

Thousands of police officers across Florida have taken state training to educate them about discrimination, such as racial profiling, during traffic stops.

But eight experts who reviewed the online training for the Tampa Bay Times found that it failed to teach officers to understand bias, shifted blame for disparate ticketing from police onto people of color and encouraged conduct that could lead to discriminatory policing.

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement slideshow told officers that traffic stops preceded “nearly every serious race riot in the United States” but provided no details about the police brutality that accompanied the stops. It inaccurately described police interactions that led to riots in Miami and Los Angeles. It cited statistics from nearly 20 years ago that showed higher public confidence in police than is felt today.

And it took roughly 25 minutes to flip through the slides and complete a quiz that one expert called “embarrassingly simple.”

The Times first started asking the department about the training in March. By July, some of the most problematic slides were removed.

Even with the changes, the training does not acknowledge that police pull over and ticket people of color more often.

Experts noted that it encourages the use of what’s known as pretextual stops, a controversial tactic that involves pulling over cars for minor violations — like expired tags or overly tinted windows — for a chance to question drivers and uncover criminal activity. The practice has been found to disproportionately affect people of color.

The course, experts said, also oversimplifies racial dynamics and focuses on ways to keep officers out of trouble. One slide teaches officers that they will be less likely to behave “insensitively toward minorities” if they stop using “racially charged stereotypes” and epithets.

“They frame bias as something that can be easily addressed,” said Amanda Petersen, an assistant professor of sociology and criminal justice at Old Dominion University in Virginia. “Their main recommendation was, ‘Don’t tell racist jokes.’”

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement's training is designed to educate officers about discrimination, such as racial profiling, during traffic stops. But experts found significant flaws in the course, which is available online as a slideshow. This slide, which was screenshotted by a Times reporter, is among those that experts found troubling.
The Florida Department of Law Enforcement's training is designed to educate officers about discrimination, such as racial profiling, during traffic stops. But experts found significant flaws in the course, which is available online as a slideshow. This slide, which was screenshotted by a Times reporter, is among those that experts found troubling. [ Florida Department of Law Enforcement ]

Training officials at the Florida Department of Law Enforcement did not agree to an interview. The department released three statements to the Times, and a spokesperson answered questions by email and phone, saying courses are updated regularly for a variety of reasons, in consultation with experts.

When asked why some slides were removed, the spokesperson, David Fierro, would not provide specifics but said one slide was updated with a link to a Gallup poll on race relations. He said changes made to the training were not related to the Times’ inquiries and that the newsroom could put in a public records request for further answers.

“We appreciate you bringing these questions to our attention,” Fierro said in an email. “To date, we have had no complaints about the course content from officers or the broader law enforcement training community.”

For decades, police have leaned on training to change officer behavior, but problems with racially disparate policing have remained largely the same. Discussions around police bias training in particular gained prominence locally after George Floyd was murdered by a Minneapolis police officer, triggering protests and calls for change across the nation.

In Florida, officers are required to undergo training on profiling every four years. The state’s specific course isn’t mandatory, Fierro said. But many officers take it as part of the retraining curriculum.

Tampa Bay agencies have used the state course. Several have gone further by providing implicit bias training, which teaches officers about underlying biases we all have but don’t necessarily recognize.

Trenia Cox, first vice president of the St. Petersburg NAACP, said the state should do more.

“Law enforcement needs greater training in implicit bias,” Cox said, “as well as monitoring of policing patterns pertaining to Black and brown citizens.”

Trenia Cox, the first vice president of the NAACP St. Petersburg branch, is advocating for better bias training for police and oversight on traffic stops.
Trenia Cox, the first vice president of the NAACP St. Petersburg branch, is advocating for better bias training for police and oversight on traffic stops. [ ANGELICA EDWARDS | Times ]

Florida has a long history of over-policing Black communities, which has prompted the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate agencies across the state, including the Miami and Tampa police departments, for using excessive force on Black men and ticketing Black bicyclists at far higher rates.

The state is also home to a former sheriff who experts said developed the practice of pretextual stops to try to make drug busts — a technique that targeted drivers of color on Interstate 95 decades ago.

Across Florida, Black motorists have been more likely to get ticketed for seat belt violations, the American Civil Liberties Union found. They’ve also been more likely to be pulled over and cited here in Tampa Bay.

Such over-policing not only leads to officers stopping people of color more frequently, it can also endanger lives. A 2017 Times investigation found Black Floridians were almost four times as likely to be shot by police than white people — and were more likely to have that shooting stem from a traffic stop.

Related: Why Cops Shoot: An unprecedented review of Florida police shootings

For these reasons, experts and community leaders say bias training alone is not enough. Examining who is being stopped is also key.

“If they’re not gathering data, and checking on their officers, they’re just giving it a pass,” said Charles Epp, professor of public affairs and administration at the University of Kansas.

Agencies, though, have resisted collecting and analyzing such information.

Some states, including North Carolina and Missouri, require police to track demographics across all stops.

There is no such requirement in Florida, and the state in its bias training says police should prevent such efforts.

Related: Tampa Bay police say racial profiling not an issue. But where’s the data?

“In a growing number of cities and states, laws and consent decrees have been enacted that require officers to report racial data on all traffic stops, in an attempt to determine if discriminatory profiling is occurring,” a slide says.

“We as a law enforcement community should solve this problem ourselves so that legislative intervention is not necessary.”

Some states have required police to track racial demographics across all traffic stops, not just tickets. This screenshot, taken by a Times reporter, depicts one slide from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement's discriminatory traffic stops training that says police should prevent such efforts.
Some states have required police to track racial demographics across all traffic stops, not just tickets. This screenshot, taken by a Times reporter, depicts one slide from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement's discriminatory traffic stops training that says police should prevent such efforts. [ Florida Department of Law Enforcement ]

‘Real and Perceived Problems’

Florida started requiring officers to complete training on discriminatory profiling more than two decades ago.

But only seven of 26 slides in the state’s online course mentioned bias or discrimination.

Roughly 20,000 officers take it annually — or more than a third of all officers in Florida.

The training included three slides titled, “Real and Perceived Problems Faced by Minorities”— all of which were deleted from the course after the Times started asking about it.

One cited statistics from 2003 that showed 70% of white people and 41% of Black people had high confidence in police. The slide was updated this summer with a link to a lengthy Gallup poll on race relations that showed 80% of Black respondents felt they were treated less fairly than white people during traffic incidents. To see the recent data, officers would need to click the link.

Fierro, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement spokesperson, said the poll link was included to ensure officers have access to the most current information.

Another slide implied that people of color may be ticketed more frequently because of their attitudes toward police, but it did not address that they are often more likely to get pulled over.

“Minority citizens may be more distrustful of the police, so less likely to discuss the violation with the officer,” the slide read before it was removed. “Poor interaction or a perceived hostile attitude by the motorist due to poor officer-motorist communications may influence the officer’s decision to issue a ticket.”

Chris Burbank, vice president of law enforcement strategy at the Center for Policing Equity, said that framing invalidates the experiences of Black and brown people.

“This seemed to be an excuse to racially profile,” said Burbank, who previously served as police chief in Salt Lake City.

The third slide noted the role of traffic stops in the history of unrest across the country.

“The final precipitating event in nearly every serious race riot in the United States in modern history,” the slide said before it was deleted, “was a traffic stop in a minority neighborhood.”

In this May 1980 photo, people walk past ruins in the Culmer section of Miami after rioting over the acquittal of four police officers charged with the 1979 beating death of Arthur McDuffie, a Black insurance agent and former Marine. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens, File)
In this May 1980 photo, people walk past ruins in the Culmer section of Miami after rioting over the acquittal of four police officers charged with the 1979 beating death of Arthur McDuffie, a Black insurance agent and former Marine. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens, File) [ KATHY WILLENS | AP ]

The training mentioned the 1965 Watts riots in Los Angeles that stemmed from a traffic stop but made no reference to the police abuses the community had long endured.

“Watts and all of these other moments of urban rebellion in the ‘60s don’t just happen because of a traffic stop,” said Max Felker-Kantor, a historian at Ball State University. “They actually happen, in large part, because years previously have had really intense police violence and harassment in Black communities.”

The training also referenced the 1980 Miami riots — but omitted critical details.

Arthur McDuffie, who was an insurance salesman and former Marine, is shown in this undated family photo. (AP Photo/Miami Herald)
Arthur McDuffie, who was an insurance salesman and former Marine, is shown in this undated family photo. (AP Photo/Miami Herald) [ AP ]

Months before the unrest, a Dade County officer had tried to pull over Arthur McDuffie, a 33-year-old Black insurance agent and former Marine, after he ran a red light on his motorcycle. McDuffie didn’t stop, and several officers gave chase.

When the pursuit ended, up to a dozen officers beat a handcuffed McDuffie into a coma and cracked his skull with batons and flashlights.

The officers covered up their actions, making it appear as though McDuffie was injured in a crash. They drove a patrol car over his motorcycle and gouged the road. Days later, McDuffie died.

After one officer confessed to the cover-up, the case went to trial in Tampa. The officers were acquitted by an all-white jury.

In Miami, the verdict sparked riots in Black neighborhoods, leaving 18 dead and hundreds injured.

The injustice was so great that, decades later, a stretch of roadway in Miami was renamed after McDuffie, and Miami-Dade County declared Feb. 2, “Arthur Lee McDuffie Family Day” in his honor.

That dark part of Florida history isn’t included in the state’s version.

The training simply said McDuffie “eluded arrest and after an 8-minute chase, he died at the scene after a physical confrontation.”

Followed by: “This resulted in a riot that included buildings being burned.”

Experts told the Times that Florida's discriminatory profiling training inaccurately described the police interaction that led to the Miami riots in 1980. This screenshot, captured by a Times reporter, shows that the slide also misidentifies the date the riots began. The slide was deleted from the training.
Experts told the Times that Florida's discriminatory profiling training inaccurately described the police interaction that led to the Miami riots in 1980. This screenshot, captured by a Times reporter, shows that the slide also misidentifies the date the riots began. The slide was deleted from the training. [ Florida Department of Law Enforcement ]

Fierro said the department did not intend for the training to “provide a recounting of the riots and the causes behind them.”

Experts saw the training’s discussion of the riots as misleading and a missed opportunity. The section should “open a really robust conversation about the tragedy of abusive police staff,” said Epp, the University of Kansas professor. “And they don’t follow up on it in any kind of way.”

‘Ways around the Constitution’

Before it was updated, the training included slides about Black and Latino communities having traffic death rates roughly triple those among white people. Experts questioned the accuracy of those numbers. They also said the slides, which were removed, appeared to try to justify the need to aggressively police communities of color.

“If our objective is to save lives, we cannot disengage from traffic enforcement in minority neighborhoods,” one slide read.

But safety-related stops, like speeding, typically don’t generate the biggest racial disparities, experts told the Times. Non-moving violations and pretextual stops do.

Experts who reviewed the Florida Department of Law Enforcement's discriminatory traffic stop training for the Times said some of the slides seemed to try to justify the need to heavily police communities of color. This screenshot from the training taken by a Times reporter also includes crash statistics that experts questioned. The slide was later removed from the course.
Experts who reviewed the Florida Department of Law Enforcement's discriminatory traffic stop training for the Times said some of the slides seemed to try to justify the need to heavily police communities of color. This screenshot from the training taken by a Times reporter also includes crash statistics that experts questioned. The slide was later removed from the course. [ Florida Department of Law Enforcement ]

The training encourages pretextual stops to uncover serious crimes. Experts said the stops are generally done at officers’ discretion and with little to no oversight.

They also have an alarming history in Florida.

Former Volusia County Sheriff Bob Vogel gained notoriety in the 1980s and ‘90s by pulling over drivers he viewed as suspicious along I-95. His technique caught on, but many of his agency’s stops never led to drug charges.

“He found 547 reasons why he pulled you over, like a shadow hanging over your license plate,” said Frank Baumgartner, political science professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “He invented the system of the pretextual traffic stop.”

An Orlando Sentinel investigation found roughly 70% of people his agency stopped were Black or Latino.

The Justice Department investigated Vogel, determining his agency had used race to decide whether to pull over drivers but clearing him of civil rights violations.

Experts said the state’s training exaggerated the benefits of using pretextual stops to fight crime. Baumgartner called them a “needle-in-the-haystack kind of strategy” that rarely leads to anything beyond small amounts of drugs or weapons.

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement did not answer questions about the training’s encouragement of the stops.

Some cities, like Los Angeles and Philadelphia, have restricted their use. Experts said doing so would help correct racial disparities in traffic enforcement.

The state’s training does highlight case law and says it’s unconstitutional to stop drivers “solely” based on race.

Four experts said using such strict parameters implies officers only need to find one objective reason to stop a car — like a broken brake light — but otherwise could consider race in their decisions.

“They’re being told that at a department level, at an institutional level, at a system level, that there are ways around the Constitution,” said Petersen, the policing expert at Old Dominion University. “I actually don’t think, in this training, that message is subtle.”

What happens in Tampa Bay?

In Tampa Bay, police agencies say their officers receive a mix of bias training. They take the state’s traffic stop course. And they also take implicit bias classes, put on by the agencies.

The Times requested bias training materials from six major police agencies in Hillsborough, Pasco and Pinellas counties. Most use Fair and Impartial Policing, a firm founded in 2011 by University of South Florida criminology professor Lorie Fridell.

Fridell, who works with departments across the country, would not share her firm’s materials with the Times. But the Clearwater Police Department provided copies of a 2013 presentation through a public records request — the only agency to do so.

Unlike the state’s training, implicit bias courses acknowledge that unequal treatment doesn’t have to stem from overt discrimination. Some scenarios are designed to get officers to recognize that.

One exercise shows photographs of city scenes followed by flashes of men, either Black or white, with an object in their hands, either a gun or something harmless. Officers shout “threat,” if they perceive one.

Fridell said the training is designed to reduce defensiveness and make officers comfortable with the reality of implicit bias.

“We do that by emphasizing the science,” Fridell said.

As experts weigh best practices, some told the Times little evidence exists to show implicit bias training has lasting effects.

Tampa Police and the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office started requiring it annually after community members demanded that the agencies do more during the national reckoning that followed Floyd’s killing in Minnesota.

Esther Matthews, the president of the St. Petersburg NAACP. The NAACP has worked with the St. Petersburg Police Department for increased transparency and receives traffic stop data from the police department.
Esther Matthews, the president of the St. Petersburg NAACP. The NAACP has worked with the St. Petersburg Police Department for increased transparency and receives traffic stop data from the police department. [ ANGELICA EDWARDS | Times ]

Esther Matthews, president of the NAACP in St. Petersburg, said the training is important, but she’d like to see more interactive courses with community members.

“What’s in place right now does not work,” Matthews said. “There needs to be a heavier lift on intention.”

St. Petersburg Police Chief Anthony Holloway said he believes the training has led to more transparency and trust.

“It’s very important; it holds us accountable to the community to see that the officers are being trained in that way,” Holloway said. “It’s very effective because we all have bias in our own way, and the training helps officers see their own bias.”

The Tampa Bay area has its own history of over-policing Black communities.

A 2015 Times investigation revealed that Tampa police targeted poor, Black neighborhoods for bike stops. Eighty percent of cyclists ticketed were Black, triggering the Justice Department to investigate.

Over the last year in St. Petersburg, data has revealed disparities in traffic stops, too.

Epp, the Kansas professor, analyzed the department’s data for the Times. Black men, he found, were twice as likely to be pulled over on investigatory stops compared to white men. The category is broad, including stops of people who are suspected of crimes like drunken driving and pretextual stops that allow the officer to investigate further, according to St. Petersburg police.

Epp called the disparities “significant and striking” and said they should prompt the department to limit investigatory stops on drivers of color.

St. Petersburg Police Chief Anthony Holloway, center, announces the formation of the CAL (Community Assistance Liaison) Team in the St. Petersburg Police Department, Thursday, July 9, 2020. On the right, Mayor Rick Kriseman listens.
St. Petersburg Police Chief Anthony Holloway, center, announces the formation of the CAL (Community Assistance Liaison) Team in the St. Petersburg Police Department, Thursday, July 9, 2020. On the right, Mayor Rick Kriseman listens. [ SCOTT KEELER | Times ]

In a statement to the Times, Holloway did not directly acknowledge the disparities. He worried about crimes potentially going unsolved, if his agency reduced stops on Black and brown drivers.

“The St. Petersburg Police Department does not condone or permit racial profiling during traffic stops,” he said. “We monitor traffic stop data and are transparent in providing our statistics to the public.”

For years, community advocacy groups have been pushing police to better track who they’re pulling over.

St. Petersburg has historically kept the most comprehensive data in the region. Tampa recently created a dashboard to track traffic and bicycle tickets, which also showed disparities.

But some police agencies in Tampa Bay have dismissed the idea of collecting more data. They’ve said racial profiling isn’t a problem here. And that training is a big reason why.

• • •

About this story: The Times wanted to learn more about bias training for police officers in Florida. Reporter Albert Serna Jr. took the Florida Department of Law Enforcement’s Discriminatory Profiling & Professional Traffic Stops course, which is available online as a slideshow.

Serna interviewed more than two dozen experts, community leaders, criminal justice advocates, lawyers and police officials. Eight experts — who have studied policing, criminal justice policy, race relations and racial disparities in traffic stops — reviewed the training for the Times. They were: Frank Baumgartner, distinguished professor of political science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; Chris Burbank, vice president of law enforcement strategy at the Center for Policing Equity and former Salt Lake City police chief; Charles Epp, distinguished professor of public affairs and administration at the University of Kansas; Max Felker-Kantor, assistant professor of history at Ball State University; Jack McDevitt, professor of the practice in criminology and criminal justice and director of the Institute on Race and Justice at Northeastern University; Naomi Murakawa, associate professor of African American Studies at Princeton University; Amanda Petersen, assistant professor of sociology and criminal justice at Old Dominion University in Virginia; and Elsie Scott, director of the Ronald W. Walters Leadership & Public Policy Center at Howard University and former deputy commissioner of training with the New York Police Department and executive director of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives.

The Times started asking the Florida Department of Law Enforcement about the training in March. In July, the agency removed several slides from the online course but said the updates were unrelated to the newsroom’s inquiries. The department made a few other small changes to the slideshow. The Times sent the department detailed questions and shared its findings from the experts’ review. The department sent three statements and answered questions by email and phone.

The Times also requested bias training materials from six major police agencies in Tampa Bay. Additionally, the Times asked whether the police agencies track racial demographics across all traffic stops to follow up on an earlier Times report. Over the past year, only St. Petersburg tracked the demographics for all stops, and the agency provided the Times a year’s worth of data. (Tampa has since started collecting additional data.) Epp, the policing expert at the University of Kansas, analyzed St. Petersburg’s data for the Times. In determining that Black men were nearly twice as likely to be pulled over for investigatory stops than white men, Epp used moving violations as a baseline for comparison. Moving violations are considered a better indicator of the driving population than a city’s overall population, Epp said.

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