For those police officers who’ve been toiling at their difficult jobs for years and dealing fairly with the public, the new website that offers detailed, accessible information about traffic stops in North Carolina might seem like second-guessing. The police take pride in their work, and they believe they’ve earned the public’s trust.
But around the country, in too many instances, police excesses have been documented by videos. That has harmed the reputation of law enforcement, fairly or not.
OpenDataPolicingNC.com was recently introduced by the Southern Coalition for Social Justice. It could help illustrate unfair police practices of targeting and profiling, but it can also refute such claims.
The site has information on nearly 20 million traffic stops made by virtually all police officers in the state over the past 15 years.
A citizen involved in a stop can go to the website and log in his or her name, gender, race, the name of the department that made the stop, the date and the location. The stop will come up, with the reason for it and a number that has been assigned to the police officer who made the stop. A visitor to the site can click on the number and get all data pertaining to the officer’s stops.
The data can be used by police departments to detect possible prejudicial behavior by police, or patterns showing, for example, a differential in the percentage of African-American motorists pulled over as opposed to the percentage of African-Americans in the county. In some counties that difference has been shown to be large.
It’s encouraging that many police departments are embracing the idea. While individual officers might be sensitive to the issue, the fact is that more transparency can be just as helpful to police departments as it can be to individuals raising questions about the performance of those departments. A data base won’t make the entire case for the police or the person on the wrong end of a charge, but it will help.
Fayetteville Police Chief Harold Medlock saw to it that his department partnered with the website early on, and that was bold on his part. But Medlock already has reached out to the African-American community in his city. At issue there and elsewhere are statistics that in some cases show African-Americans are pulled over more often for suspected violations than are white motorists.
It’s true that one website isn’t going to resolve all disputes between police officers and civilians involved in police stops. But this is an instance where the more information, the better for police and civilians alike.