Black drivers stopped, searched by police at disproportionate rate in Triangle cities
By: Samantha Kummerer and Maggie Green
Dozens of traffic stops happen across North Carolina every day. While the common interaction between police and citizens aims to increase safety on the roads, it also carries lasting impacts for the communities disproportionately impacted. The ABC11 I-Team in collaboration with ABC-Owned TV Stations analyzed more than 400,000 traffic stops made by Raleigh and Durham Police from 2014-2020 to find Black drivers are disproportionately stopped and searched by officers. As advocates push for criminal justice reform across the country, the ABC11 I-Team explores
how traffic stop disparities play a part
in the civil unrest throughout America.
It’s not just about a traffic ticket, it’s actually about
life and death and that’s been seen time and time again.
DRIVING WHILE BLACK
HITTING THE MARK?
SOLUTIONS IN BLUE
- Tyler Whittenburg, Southern Coalition for Social Justice
'We have to do better':
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RALEIGH - Growing up as a Black American, Brandon Smith learned driving came with a different set of rules.
“I’m staying in the lane. I’m doing the speed limit. I’m not merging too fast. I’m just trying to make sure I’m the perfect driver, perfect citizen because I know it could end up being a deadly situation at the end of the day,” Smith said
The 27-year-old Raleigh native was around 16 years old when he first got pulled over. He said an expired license plate led to a ticket and even a search.That was the first time but over the last 10 years he’s had numerous other encounters that have left him fearful behind the wheel.
“I’ve always drove with a certain type of tensity just because I’m scared. I’m nervous, it’s nerve racking to be a target out here and you know that there’s 100 police officers this way when you drive and there’s 200 this way when you drive and you have to blend in with the crowd so you won’t get picked out. That’s just nerve racking to me,” Smith said.
Smith’s fears are not unjustified. An ABC11 I-Team analysis of more than 400,000 traffic stops uncovered Black drivers make up 51% of all Raleigh Police Department traffic stops between 2014 - 2020. White drivers made up 37% of the traffic stops over the last six years.
I’ve always drove with a certain type of tensity just because I’m scared. I’m nervous, it’s nerve racking to be a target out here.
- Brandon Smith, Raleigh native
Though that may not seem like a huge disparity, Raleigh’s population is 29% Black and 59% white, according to 2019 Census data. Thus, Black drivers account for a disproportionate share of traffic stops in the city.
However, a 2016 independent study into police stops in Raleigh between 2010 -2015 found “no evidence of racial bias.” The study by the organization RTI compared race of drivers to the time of day when they were stopped using the assumption that in the evening, the race of the driver would be concealed. But the study did not look at any of the actions taken after an individual was stopped.
Frank Baumgartner, a political science professor at University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill who has spent the last few years conducting research on traffic stops in North Carolina, said the outcome of a traffic stop can get to the heart of the disparities in traffic stop interactions between police and the community they patrol.
OF RPD TRAFFIC STOPS
OF RALEIGH'S POPULATION
“What I can say for sure is once that traffic stop is initiated, then we can look at the outcome of the traffic stop,” Baumgartner said. “And then we know about the numerator and the denominator. We know everything we need to know. And we can look at who gets arrested, who gets off with a ticket, who gets a warning, who gets searched. And those numbers are very, very clear.”
Data shows that actions taken after the stop reveal further racial disparities. Black males are more than twice as likely to be searched and more likely to receive a warning and be arrested than white males.
Traffic stop disparities aren’t unique to the Raleigh Police Department. The ABC11 I-Team also uncovered Black drivers were more likely to get stopped by Durham police between 2014-2020.
Black drivers made up 60% of all stops but only accounted for around 37% of the population.
Meanwhile, white drivers made up 27% of all stops but account for 54% of the population.
After the stop, Durham police searched Black males 4.8 times more often than white males.
The Durham Police Department acknowledged these disparities but denied the reasoning had to due to the race of the driver.
“While Black drivers are stopped more often than white drivers, those stops are based on the violation observed and not the demographics of the driver,” Lt. David M. Anthony, a spokesperson for the department wrote in an email. “In addition, Black drivers are searched at higher rates than white drivers, but 75 percent of all searches in the last five years were based on probable cause and not consent.”
Baumgartner, the UNC political science professor, found in his analysis of more than 20 million stops across every community in North Carolina that the percent of Black individuals stopped was higher than their portion
of the population in almost
every police department.
His research also found
a majority of stops
are ineffective in discovering
contraband, but have
lasting negative impacts
on minority communities.
At the heart of traffic stops, is the desire to keep the community safe. However, data calls into question how effective these actions are at hitting that target.
“So it really should make us all question whether it's worth it in terms of keeping our community safe versus the other side of it, which is that it alienates so many young people, especially young men of color who are routinely subjected to things,” Baumgartner said.
The ABC11 I-Team analysis found in Raleigh, officers found contraband on Black drivers slightly more often than on white drivers (29% of searches compared to 23%), but in Durham, officers found contraband on Black and white drivers at roughly the same rate (37.3%).
When contraband is found, rarely is the amount more than a gram.
In Raleigh, only 17 searches (0.1%) led to a pound or more of contraband. On the contrary, police found less than a gram of contraband in 492 searches and less than one tenth of a gram in 78 searches. Raleigh police officers seized zero weapons during searches from 2014-2020.
Similarly, Durham police officers found a pound or more of contraband in just 0.1% of all searches, and less than a gram in 4%, or 298 searches.
Durham officers did find at least one weapon in 389 searches, taking 488 weapons in total. However, those seizures account for just 5% of all searches in the years analyzed.
“So I think we really do have to ask serious questions about whether we're being kept safer by the use of the traffic code as an excuse to do a fishing expedition,” Baumgartner said.
Across the country, traffic stops that originate for a burned-out tail light or a missing license plate have had deadly consequences.
“It’s not just about a traffic ticket, it’s actually about life and death and that’s been seen time and time again,” Said Tyler Whittenburg, chief counsel for the Southern Coalition for Social Justice’s Justice System Reform program.
In 2015, Samuel DuBose was pulled over for lacking a front license plate on the University of Cincinnati campus. He refused to give the officer his drivers’ license, a tussle began and minutes later the officer fatally shot Dubose in the head.
In 2018, a Texas officer pulled over O'Shae Terry for a registration violation. Terry attempted to drive away during the stop. The officer fired into the car and fatally shot Terry.
Earlier this year, a New Jersey police officer pulled Maurice Gordon over for speeding. Dash Camera footage shows Gordon attempting to flee and the two tusseling. Six shots rang out and Gordon fell to the ground. Gordon was unarmed.
New Jersey Attorney General’s Office
While death is an extreme outcome, Whittenburg pointed to other negative consequences that occur far too often.
“In that instance, that one traffic stop, could lead to someone losing employment, it could lead to someone losing their education or their financial aid for their education, it could lead to someone losing their housing,” Whittenburg said.
Baumgartner agrees. He said a traffic stop for a vehicle code violation--such as a broken tail light--could have financial consequences if a person cannot afford the cost of their ticket or court fees.
“It could start a person down a path that could eventually become very difficult for them to get out because of the financial consequence, which might be, you know, a couple thousand dollars in the worst case,” Baumgartner said. “So who's benefiting from that? What's the point? Are we really safer because of that system? Do we really want to have debtor's prisons? I don't think so.”
“I think we have a responsibility in law enforcement to number one acknowledge that data and then also talk about it and see what kind of interventions we can put in place to try to mitigate those outcomes,” said Chapel Hill Police Chief Chris Blue. Blue is also a member of NC CRED, an organization that
In recent years, the Durham Police Department has enacted this policy change, resulting in an 88% decrease in consent searches by police officers since 2014.
The data also shows as more searches are conducted due to probable cause, the likelihood of finding contraband increases.
“When we are having searches they are based on a much stronger set of circumstances,” Blue explained. “Those contraband rates are going up because the quality of the search has gone up.”
aims to alleviate disparities in the criminal justice system.
He said one way local departments are trying to combat these disparities is by requiring officers to provide a consent form to drivers before conducting a search.
Over the last few years both departments have also reported a decrease in the overall number of stops.
Since 2014, DPD has reduced the overall number of traffic stops by 33%. Similarly, RPD conducted 44,768 stops in 2019, compared to 67,329 stops in 2014.
While the overall number of traffic stops have decreased, the disparities between who is getting stopped have increased because of that.
Black drivers made up 56% of RPD stops in 2019 compared to 46% in 2014. On the other hand, white drivers made up less of the overall stops in 2019 (31%) than they did in 2014 (41%).
In Durham, Black drivers made up 4% more of total traffic stops in 2019 vs. 2014. A fourth of DPD’s traffic stops in 2019 involved white drivers compared to 27% of stops in 2014.
Durham Mayor Steve Schewel pointed to both the decline in consent-based searches and number of stops as the result of years of work both by Durham city leaders and the Durham Police Department.
“And it’s mattered,” Schewel said. “It’s mattered to thousands of people who haven’t been swept up in the criminal justice system because of that.”
In addition, the Durham Police Department conducts internal reviews of it’s traffic stop data bi-annually, issues reports and commissions external studies.
The department’s 2019 report found Black individuals were stopped at a higher percentage than their population, but noted the finding was inline with other major North Carolina cities.
Breaking the data down by officer and location, the report further concluded, “Based upon the data analyzed, there was no evidence of unexplainable disparities regarding traffic stops among the officers. Rather, officers are stopping vehicles consistent with the demographics and crime statistics of their assigned areas.”
“The Durham Police Department has and will continue to identify and implement change to not only comply with current case laws and best practices but to also meet the expectations that the community expects and deserves,” Anthony said in an email.
Schewel said while his city has done a lot of work over the last decade to reduce the number of traffic stops and searches and mitigate the negative consequences of those searches, he admits the work is far from over.
I think we know that we’re not where we need to be because we still have racial disparities in traffic stops.
- Durham Mayor Steve Schewel
But he also emphasized work being done to alleviate the financial burdens caused by traffic stops and the cascading effects an unpaid traffic ticket can have on a person’s life. Schewel pointed to Durham’s Expunction and Restoration Program (DEAR), through which he said Durham courts have remitted more than $1.3 million in old traffic fines, restored Durhamites’ driver’s licenses by dismissing previous vehicle code and traffic violations (other than DWI) and expunged 900 records for free in the last year.
“This is the kind of work that I think is necessary to create a racially just society,” Schewel said.
The ABC11 I-Team reached out to the Raleigh Police Department for comment. Though the department did not provide a statment or answer a list of questions, they did respond with links to two studies from RTI that found no bias in traffic stops conducted by RPD, except in Southwest Raleigh.
“If we just focus on traffic stops then we’re not giving enough attention to those other points in the system that need to be transformed in order for us to have a system of justice within our communities,” said Tyler Whittenburg.
Advocates and educators point to traffic stop disparities as being a piece of the bigger picture of criminal justice reform and therefore the solutions need to involve change at all levels.
“We as a community. We as a state. We have to do better. The law enforcement in the country, in the city, in the state, they have to do better when it comes to over policing the marginalized community,” said Kerwin Pittman, a community activist and member of Raleigh Demands Justice.
Pittman said he hears from countless individuals who have had adverse experiences with police in the Raleigh area.
“Something has to give and we’re not asking for something outlandish, we’re just asking to be treated fair, just and equally and to put some steps in place to stop us from being brutalized across the country and in the city of Raleigh.” Pittman said.
This year the Raleigh Police Department did ban chokeholds and is working to align it’s policies with the campaign ‘8 Can’t Wait’ to reduce use of force incidents. The city also took steps to create a Police Advisory Board to create a liaison between the community and city leaders.
Pittman pointed to more efforts that can be taken including increasing community policing and reallocating departments’ funds to support crisis intervention employees as some beginning steps.
“I think when people talk about defunding the police, I think one of the aspects of that is just pulling the police back a little bit. It's not necessarily eliminating the police. It's just questioning, does the police officer need to be in this neighborhood all the time, routinely interrupting people on their way to and fro,” Baumgarnter said.
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Baumgartner also said over the years, his research has shown that the line between traffic enforcement and the war on drugs has become blurred.
“Don't use the traffic code as a way to do criminal investigations, you know, spend some more time, hire some detectives, go do some investigations as to who's involved in criminal activity and go arrest those people. Don't just stand on the street corner and, you know, pull people over for running through a stop sign and have a conversation and see if maybe a few of them are involved in crime. That's just a needle in the haystack proposition that is very costly, but then it's also really easy for the police to do so. It doesn't require as much effort,” he explained.
Baumgartner said while conducting criminal investigations to bolster safety is a necessary part of the law, tackling mistrust between community and police is also an important aspect that needs to be addressed to make systematic change.
“We need the community to be, you know, pushing us and pushing the police department, pushing all of us all the time to try to create a more racially just society,” Schewel said.