The Texas Department of Public Safety will change the way the agency records the race of stopped motorists after it was discovered troopers habitually misidentify Hispanics as white in traffic data, according to a DPS memo.
Troopers now will ask each driver who's stopped for a traffic infraction to tell them their race, according the memo released Wednesday. The move is meant to increase the accuracy of state statistics used to monitor racial profiling.
"What we can do better, and we should have been doing better, is collect the data accurately, as it relates to Hispanics," DPS Director Steve McCraw testified Wednesday in front of a legislative committee, later adding, "That should have been done better and we've got an obligation to fix that."
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The move comes after NBC affiliate KXAN-TV in Austin conducted a database review using millions of records extending back to 2010 that shows troopers across the state inaccurately reported the race of Hispanic drivers.
The television station's investigation of DPS traffic citation records also found the number of drivers stopped by troopers and recorded as Hispanic has gone up annually since 2010 — from nearly 208,000 to 351,000 last year — while the number of drivers recorded as white declined in the same time period from 1.9 million to about 1.2 million last year.
Among the most common surnames of drivers listed by troopers as white are Garcia, Martinez, Hernandez, Gonzalez and Rodriguez. While a Hispanic name doesn't necessarily mean a person is of Hispanic descent, the review of DPS records shows more than 1.9 million drivers with traditionally Hispanic names were listed as white. Over the same period, approximately 1.6 million were reported as Hispanic.
A state law meant to prevent racial profiling requires authorities to document the race of every driver who is issued a warning or citation, or is arrested.
DPS spokesman Tom Vinger has previously acknowledged that law enforcement databases at the state and national levels have limitations with identifying codes that are used. For instance, their computer systems have five specific codes for race, but that Hispanic is seen as an ethnicity, rather than a race.
He rejected any claim that the misidentification of Hispanic drivers was to mask racial profiling by troopers.
"Racial profiling is against the law, against DPS policy, and is not tolerated by the department," he said in a statement Wednesday. "Any allegation of racial profiling is taken very seriously by the department and thoroughly investigated."