A new report shows Durham police stopped and searched more black drivers than white drivers last year, but police say the numbers reflect high-crime areas and the people found there.
Police made 21,939 traffic stops in 2014, a 14 percent drop from the year before.
Nearly 60 percent of those stopped were black, and nearly 40 percent were white, with a small percentage labeled “other.” Blacks make up about 40 percent of Durham’s residents.
Police searched only about one in 20 drivers they stopped.
Once stopped, 7.72 percent of black drivers were searched, compared to 4.55 percent of Latino drivers and 2.65 percent of white drivers, according to the report compiled and released by the police department.
Instead of bias, department leaders said Thursday that black drivers are stopped and searched more often because there are more black drivers in high-crime areas, where neighborhood residents also have asked for more police help.
“Bias is a serious allegation against law enforcement, and we take it very seriously,” said Deputy Chief Larry Smith, who prepared the report.
“There may be disparities, but the bias isn’t there,” said Police Chief Jose L. Lopez.
Traffic stops and searches have come under scrutiny in Durham and many other cities.
Groups such as Durham’s FADE Coalition say the higher numbers of minority drivers stopped and searched show racial profiling, a claim the Durham Police Department has rejected.
About one in three traffic stops last year, for example, occurred in a 6.5-square-mile area of East Durham that accounts for a quarter of all reported crime and nearly a third of all calls for service, according to the report.
Much of this area overlaps the police department’s Operation Bull’s Eye area, where police for several years have focused patrols to reduce crime.
“The important distinction here is that no matter your race, the chances of being stopped in Durham are low,” police spokesman Wil Glenn said in an email Thursday. “The majority of stops occur in targeted areas based on high calls for service and crime. These areas are also areas mostly populated by minorities.”
Police found contraband – such as drugs, weapons or stolen goods – in just over a quarter of the searches.
When contraband is found, police have some discretion in charging drivers.
For example, Deputy Chief Anthony Marsh said an officer may find a blunt roach or spent marijuana cigarette and not charge someone, even though possession of a small amount of marijuana is a misdemeanor.
Police on Thursday could not break down what types of contraband were found. The FADE coalition has asked police to make marijuana enforcement a low priority.
The coalition argues that Durham police treat black drivers with more suspicion than white drivers. In a 2013 report to city leaders, FADE members said black men in particular comprised 17.4 percent of the city’s population but 65.1 percent of those searched during traffic stops.
In late 2013, Mayor Bill Bell asked the city’s Human Relations Commission to investigate police bias claims. The commission held months of public hearings before concluding “racial bias and profiling (are) present in the Durham Police Department practices.”
In October, Durham police began requiring written consent for traffic stops in which police do not have probable cause or reason to believe a crime has been committed.
According to Thursday’s report, police asked for such consent 91 times during the last three months of 2014, with 69 drivers granting consent and 22 denying consent.
Without written permission, FADE members and others have said some drivers may not realize they can say no to consent search requests.