Police agencies in Saline County deny claims they are racially profiling, but a survey of 2011 jail records seems to indicate otherwise. In Bryant in 2011, drivers with Hispanic surnames were two and a half times more likely to go to jail than non-Hispanic drivers after being cited for charges that included no driver's license (DL). The numbers were slightly better for Latinos in Benton in 2011, when drivers with Hispanic surnames were over twice as likely to go to jail as everyone else after being cited for charges that included no DL.
To be sure, departments in Saline County often cast a wide net, and not just for undocumented drivers. The police department in Benton (population 30,681) issued citations for 3,102 separate traffic offenses in 2011, and the department in Bryant (population 16,688) issued 4,913. While most born-and-raised Americans would drive away with a citation from a minor traffic stop in Saline County for no seat belt, a broken taillight or speeding, for undocumented immigrants, it's different.
Because undocumented immigrants can't obtain a valid driver's license legally in most cases, the Times looked at all drivers ticketed for charges including having no DL in 2011 made by the Benton and Bryant departments. The Times also examined the jail roster of those booked into the Saline County Detention Center in 2011 for charges including no DL.
Bryant and Benton police citations do not note whether a driver is Hispanic. Given that, in our examination of those documents, we used the presence of a Hispanic surname and/or first name — names like Juan Frausto-Valadez, Pedro Garcia-Rozendez, and Leonico Ochoa-Rodriguez for example — as an indication the driver was Hispanic. We were able to confirm the race of most of the drivers who went to jail because the Saline County Detention Center does mark "H" for Hispanic.
Judge Curtis Rickard, the traffic judge in Bryant, said there is a directive that officers within the county are to take to jail drivers who are found during traffic stops to have no license or a suspended license. The directive, developed by county law enforcement and judicial officers to combat what Rickard characterized as a "real problem" with drivers cited for driving without a license or with a suspended license failing to appear in court, is not ironclad, however. "The police officers have their own discretion," Rickard said. "Nobody issued a direct order to tell a police officer he had to take them to jail. He's not going to do that if he doesn't want to. If he's got somebody there that can drive the car off, then he'll let that person do that most of the time."
Benton Police Chief Kirk Lane said that when a driver is stopped by the Benton PD and found to have no driver's license in his possession, officers run the driver's name through the Arkansas Crime Information database, which includes the names of all those with valid driver's licenses in the U.S. He said those drivers found to have a valid driver's license but who don't have it in their possession at the time of the stop would not be cited for no DL.
In 2011, the Benton Police Department issued 165 total citations for the offense of no DL. Eighty-three were written to probable Hispanics, based on their surnames. Eighty-two were written to people who were probably non-Hispanic.
Forty drivers (24 percent of those cited for charges including no DL) were sent to jail on charges that included no DL, including 12 non-Hispanics, and 28 Hispanics. That means 34 percent of those with Hispanic surnames who were cited for charges including no DL went to jail, while 15 percent of probable non-Hispanics cited for charges including no DL went to jail.
Ten of the 28 Hispanic drivers and six of the 12 non-Hispanic drivers who were transported to jail in Benton on charges that included no DL were also charged with driving while intoxicated (DWI). Of the drivers transported to jail on charges including no DL but not DWI, 18 were Hispanic. None of the 18 Hispanics who were not charged with a DWI who went to jail after being cited for no DL were eventually charged with anything more serious than no DL and minor traffic charges like no seat belt, no proof of insurance, loud muffler or broken taillight.
In 2011, the Bryant Police Department wrote 156 total citations for the offense of no DL in 2011. Ninety-eight were written to those with Hispanic surnames, while 58 citations were written to non-Hispanics. Seventy-three drivers (47 percent of those ticketed for charges including no DL) went to jail, including 14 non-Hispanics and 59 Hispanics. Therefore, 60 percent of those with Hispanic surnames who were cited for charges including no DL went to jail, while only 24 percent of non-Hispanics cited for charges including no DL went to jail.
Twenty-two of the 59 Hispanics who went to jail in Bryant in 2011 on charges that included no DL were also charged with DWI, while none of the 14 non-Hispanics who went to jail received a DWI.
Of the 37 Hispanic drivers ticketed who were not charged with a DWI, but were cited for no DL in 2011, all but two — one booked for shoplifting, and another jailed on a warrant for failure to pay a previous fine — were incarcerated on fairly minor charges like broken taillight, no insurance, no seat belt, speeding, or "careless and prohibited" driving.
"We are not actively out there stopping people because of their race," Benton Police Chief Kirk Lane said. "We actively stop people because of traffic violations or suspicious activity that we believe they may be [involved] in. We make sure of that." His department trains yearly on issues involving racial profiling, Lane said.
Sgt. Todd Crowson, the public information officer for the Bryant Police Department, also denied that his department engages in any kind of racial profiling of Hispanic drivers. "Bryant has always had a reputation for writing a lot of tickets," he said. "We do. And we get that. Does it hurt our feelings when people say that? No. It is what it is ... But if any of our officers were out here racial profiling, our supervisor — and we've got some good supervisors on the street, and excellent lieutenants over the patrol division — if they see that happening, I can guarantee you they'll put a stop to it."
When asked why Saline County, and maybe Bryant in particular, has a reputation for being harder on Hispanic drivers, he said: "I'm sorry they feel that way. I truly am. I hate that. You don't want to have a bad relationship between law enforcement and any race, whoever it might be."