Traffic-stop numbers show racial bias across North Carolina

jwise@newsobserver.comSeptember 29, 2013 

  • Human Relations meeting

    The Durham Human Relations Commission will consider allegations of racial bias by police during a public hearing at its regular monthly meeting, at 7 p.m. Tuesday in the City Council chamber, first floor, City Hall. City Hall is at the corner of Mangum Street and City Hall Plaza in downtown Durham.

— In North Carolina, the numbers show that a black motorist is 77 percent more likely to be searched after a traffic stop than a white driver.

”I don’t want to over-interpret the numbers,” said UNC political scientist Frank R. Baumgartner, who analyzed data from more than 13.2 million traffic stops from more than 10 years ( “The numbers speak for themselves.”

Those numbers have been speaking particularly loud in Durham, where Mayor Bill Bell has directed the city’s Human Relations Commission to look into allegations of racial profiling by police.

“We just need to get a handle on it,” Bell said last week. “If there’s truth to it, deal with it. If there’s not any truth to it, deal with that.”

The allegations are on the commission’s agenda for its meeting at 7 p.m. Tuesday in the City Council chamber at City Hall.

In Durham County, Baumgartner’s analysis showed a black motorist is more than twice as likely than a white to be searched after being stopped for speeding. The likelihood is even greater after being stopped for a seat-belt violation.

Profiling on the highways

Durham’s statistics reflect a statewide situation Baumgartner found when he and graduate student Derek Epp analyzed data from 13.2 million North Carolina traffic stops, involving 13.5 million drivers and passengers, between Jan. 1, 2000, and June 14, 2011.

In 1999, the North Carolina Legislature passed one of the nation’s first laws requiring law-enforcement agencies to collect and report racial and ethnic data on traffic stops.

However, Baumgartner said, in all that time, “As far as I know ... no analysis has ever been published or sent to the legislature. So we did the analysis.”

Whites constituted 68.5 percent of the state’s 2010 population, blacks 21.5 percent and Hispanics 7.92. Baumgartner and Epp found, though, that:

•  30 percent of the traffic stops involved blacks, 21.5 percent whites, 7.92 percent Hispanics;

•  4.86 percent of blacks’ stops led to searches; 2.74 percent of whites’, 5.39 percent of Hispanics;

•  4.5 percent of blacks’ stops led to arrests, 2.8 percent of whites’, 5.93 percent of Hispanics’.

The numbers, Baumgartner said, show that a black motorist is 77 percent more likely to be searched following a traffic stop than a white; a Hispanic is 96 percent more likely to be searched.

“A 77 percent greater likelihood of being searched is a pretty significant difference,” he said.

Culture of unconscious racism

Scott Holmes, a Durham attorney who directs the Civil Litigation Clinic at the N.C. Central University law school, said last week that the Baumgartner results show “as an empirical fact ...

we have a culture in our law enforcement for unconscious institutional racism.”

Institutional racism among Durham police has become a front-burner issue due to a series of events:

•  A black motorist was accused of shooting a black police detective during a December 2012 traffic stop. The motorist’s supporters claim the officer accidentally shot himself after making the stop without cause. The case has not yet come to trial.

•  In July, An assistant police chief complained to the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that he was passed over for promotions because he had complained about racially insensitive remarks by Police Chief Jose L. Lopez. Lopez, who is of Puerto Rican descent, has denied there is discrimination or racial profiling in his department. The EEOC has not yet responded to Forbes’ complaint.

•  In August, residents of two predominantly black neighborhoods published complaints that “over-policing, racial profiling, and intimidation” had undermined their trust in the police, and that Lopez had failed to act on their concerns.

No witch hunt

Bell said he wants the commission to address only the issues brought up at the work session “in terms of police stopping people, racial profiling … lack of sensitivity on the part of police when it comes to African-Americans.

“This is not a witch hunt,” the mayor added. “ I want to get an answer to some of these questions.”

Racial bias in law enforcement, though, is not just a problem for particular agencies, though, Baumgartner said.

“It’s a national problem. ... It’s a huge problem.”

He and Epp submitted their analysis to a N.C. Advocates for Justice task force on Feb. 1, 2012. It went on to the state Attorney General, who appointed a task force that is “looking into making recommendations,” Baumgartner said.

“They’ve been working pretty quietly,” he said. Meanwhile, one state legislator has tried to eliminate the mandate for reporting traffic-stop data.

“That bill didn’t go anywhere,” he said. “But there is hostility to the idea of even collecting this data.”

Wise: 919-641-5895

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