An investigation by ABC News and ABC-owned stations across the U.S. found African-Americans are just as likely to be stopped by Houston police than white individuals. When stopped, though, they're more likely to be searched.
‘It could be your last moment’
By Ted Oberg, Yun Choi and Sarah Rafique
Devon Williamson, a student at Texas Southern University, said whenever he's in public, he's constantly aware that he could get stopped by police. But, it goes beyond that.
“It is entirely unfair. I come from a big family. There's eight of us, predominantly male, so for all of us to have to feel that way, when we just walked down the street to have to worry about, are we wearing the right thing? Are we going to say the right thing,” Williamson said. “What am I going to do when I get out of this house? Am I going to come back tonight? Am I not? Should I wear this? Should I dress like that? Should I talk like this? How should I behave, just outside of my own home?”
Williamson said every time another Black man or woman's name becomes a hashtag following police brutality, the lifelong conversation of how to interact with police and frustrations over unequal rights continues.
Williamson said the burden of being a Black man was enhanced when Houstonian George Floyd died May 25 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Video captured from a bystander shows an officer holding his knee on Floyd's neck as he cries out that he can't breathe.
Williamson, also a native Houstonian, said the death spurred an even deeper conversation for his family.
“We did cry when we saw it on the news,” Williamson said. “I never knew the man, but she was like, 'I grew up with him. I knew that guy.' So the conversation got severe when she said, 'That was a buddy I knew. I need you to know this, Devon, so that you won't be a hashtag. You won't have to go through that type of pain. I won't have to go through that type of pain.'”
Williamson said he understands not all police officers are bad. His first interaction with a police officer was when he was in kindergarten, on the sidewalk with his dad. Although he doesn’t think it was racially motivated, he was still scared.
“When I see police behind me now, when I'm driving, I look at it as a 50/50 chance - 50/50 being they could be a good cop or a bad cop,” Devon said. “You can never tell which is which. They can act friendly, but in a moment it can be triggered and then everything goes black.”
Published Sept. 8, 2020
ONLINE EXCLUSIVE | Click the play icon to hear their stories.
HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) — Avery Robinson recalls riding in the car with his father when several police officers pulled them over in their own driveway about two years ago after getting home from school.
Robinson still remembers his father telling him to pay attention to how he interacted with the officers.
The teen started taking mental notes.
“When you’re driving, always keep your hands on the steering wheel, both of your hands. When the police ask you questions, always look at them and answer with respect,” Robinson said. “If you need to get your driver's license or anything, ask them first before you go grab it so they don’t think you’re grabbing anything else.”
The police officer gave his father a ticket for a broken tail light and Robinson said they were both relieved the situation didn’t escalate. Now, as the 15-year-old Houstonian gets ready to start driving himself, he is scared of what could happen if he gets pulled over.
An analysis, conducted by ABC News in collaboration with 13 Investigates and ABC-owned stations, found that in several major U.S. cities, Black drivers are significantly more likely to be stopped by police than white drivers.
In only two out of the 12 cities examined by ABC News – Louisville and Houston – Black Americans are as likely as white Americans to be stopped by the police. But, our analysis found that Houston police search far more Black drivers.
The ABC News and ABC-owned stations analysis looked at data collected by local police departments on millions of traffic stops over the last several years. It shows Black drivers or pedestrians were more likely to be stopped by police than white drivers or pedestrians in several major U.S. cities, after accounting for the demographics of the cities and counties those police departments serve.
The data collected by police departments differ from city to city, but ABC News examined multiple years of data in almost every city. Experts stress that racial disparities alone cannot prove racial bias. Rather, the data analysis simply shows the often vast differences in how often members of a city’s police force interact with Black people compared to white people in the same city.
In almost every major city examined, the analysis shows at least some disparity in traffic stops. In some cities, those disparities were significant. In Minneapolis, for example, where George Floyd was killed at the hands of the police officers earlier this year, Black drivers were five times more likely to be stopped by police than white drivers. In Chicago, Black drivers were four times more likely to be stopped. And, in Philadelphia, San Francisco and Los Angeles, Black drivers were about three times more likely to be stopped.
In Houston, the numbers have been improving in recent years and it was among only two of the 12 cities analyzed where Black individuals were just as likely to get pulled over as white individuals.
Specifically, census data shows the Black and white populations in the city are roughly the same size and when our team looked at all traffic stops performed by the Houston Police Department, Black drivers and white drivers are stopped just as often.
Devon Williamson, Jakory Johnson, Darius Herron and Avery Robinson share their experience growing up as Black men in America. All four received mentorship from the Chauncy Glover Project. As part of the program, they went through police training sessions aimed at fostering better relationships.
But, the data goes further, looking at how many of those stops result in a search, either by getting consent or following an arrest. Our analysis found Black drivers are three times more likely to be searched when stopped.
Most of those searches happen after an arrest, rather than by consent. HPD Chief Art Acevedo says that’s a function of who is getting arrested.
“Sadly, disproportionately, the violent crime has happened in communities of color and so we put more resources, we dedicate more resources,” Acevedo said. “You more than likely will see more arrests in those communities just because of the number of resources we dedicate.”
Acevedo said the department looks at stop and search data regularly to make sure the department, and individual officers, are working effectively. He said he also looks for indicators of racial profiling or whether or not specific communities are being disproportionately impacted when it comes to policing.
“It’s important to the community, so it needs to be important to us,” Acevedo said.
When he led the Austin Police Department and now as police chief in Houston, Acevedo brought in the New York-based Center for Policing Equity to focus on it.
“My hope is that the folks at roll call will get that their responsibilities right now are not just legal, they're historical and they're not responsible for the sins of this nation, but they may be principal architects and fixing it if they choose to step up and if they don’t, then it’s probably not the right job for them,” the organization’s co-founder and CEO Dr. Phillip Atiba Goff told 13 Investigates.
Goff is doing his own analysis of Houston's work that goes far beyond just stops and searches. He said racism is bigger than policing and officers shouldn't be responsible for fixing it all, but they can right some wrongs.”
“It's never been more important to do your jobs as well as you possibly can,” he said. “Yeah, that extra weight is something, but most of the folks who were at the roll call, they got into the business to do the right thing for a living.”
HPD's work with the Center for Policing Equity is ongoing and no final report has been issued.
ABC News’ Pete Madden contributed to this report.